Live updates, February 3: First Covid-19 vaccine given the green light

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for February 3. Reach me at stewart@spinoff.co.nz. Keep The Spinoff ticking by donating here.

6.00pm: The day in sum

The Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine was provisionally approved following a “robust assessment” of its safety, effectiveness and quality.

There were three new cases of Covid-19 in managed isolation and none in the community

Unemployment dropped to 4.9% in the December 2020 quarter, down from 5.3% in September.

National leader Judith Collins said her party still had no stance on conversion therapy.’

Jeff Bezos announced plans to step down as CEO of Amazon.

3.30pm: ‘Did the government negotiate hard enough?’ – National questions vaccine schedule

The opposition is asking for “more certainty” around when the first Covid-19 vaccine will arrive in the country.

Jacinda Ardern could not today rule out the vaccine arriving after its first quarter deadline, but said that remained the government’s hope.

National’s Covid-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop said over 50 countries have already started vaccinating their citizens.

“The reality is the government has been a laggard when it comes to vaccines,” Bishop said. “The government has tough questions to answer regarding its contracts with the various vaccine suppliers. What do the contracts say on delivery dates?  Did the government negotiate hard enough?”

2.00pm: Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine gets provisional approval; Ardern won’t commit to rollout dates

Updated

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been provisionally approved following a “robust assessment” of its safety, effectiveness and quality.

Clinical data was first given to Medsafe in November and the Medicines Assessment Advisory Committee spent six hours yesterday providing final advice to the regulator.

In a statement, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said this has been a “carefully considered” decision. “It’s only been made after following the vigorous assessment processes which are an integral part of all New Zealand’s decision-making around medicines,” he said.

Read more: New Zealand approves Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, first jabs expected next month

Medsafe’s group manager Chris James said that aside from some minor side effects – such as a painful arm and a headache – the Pfizer vaccine passed a benefit-risk assessment.

“Medsafe has placed 58 conditions on the approval for the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine. Of these, 52 relate to requiring additional manufacturing data from the company, for instance as it upscales its manufacturing,” James said. “Six of the conditions relate to additional clinical information such as regular updates from clinical trials, and ensuring we receive any information on safety concerns from around the world.”

Bloomfield said that vaccination is the “key next step” in responding to the coronavirus. “There is more work to do, we are not out of the woods yet — but the provisional approval of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is a significant milestone.”

Medsafe will continue to monitor the use of the vaccine in New Zealand along with any potential side effects.

At this stage, the first batch of the jab is set to arrive on our shores next month where it will first be rolled out to border workers, MIQ staff and at risk groups. The public rollout will take place later in the year. Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins had said he hoped to have all New Zealanders vaccinated before the end of 2021.

Ardern welcomes decision to approve vaccine

New Zealand can now prepare for the first stage of the vaccine rollout, prime minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement.

“Medsafe’s decision is the culmination of a rigorous assessment process over many months to ensure the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is safe and effective to use here. It is informed by the most up to date medical and scientific data. We can have confidence in their decision.”

Speaking to reporters, Ardern continued to be coy around the exact timing for when the rollout would begin. Once the vaccine does arrive in the country, border workers and their household contacts will get the first dose. “People such as cleaners, the nurses who undertake health checks in MIQ, security staff, customs and border officials, airline staff and hotel workers will be among the first to get the vaccine,” Ardern said.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said he still expected the first batch of the vaccine to arrive in New Zealand by the end of the first quarter. “We are making sure everything is in place in case there is an earlier arrival,” he said.

Asked about whether she is concerned about “anti-vax” messaging, Ardern said there are only a few people who are truly against vaccinations. There is a group, she said, who are hesitant. Ardern hoped to give them the confidence that the vaccination was safe.

Ardern confirmed that herself along with her entire family would get the jab, but said she should not be first in line.

1.15pm: New play about first Covid-19 lockdown goes into production

A new play about the first Covid-19 lockdown, and based on verbatim conversations with our country’s leaders, has had its first table read today.

Titled “Transmission” and co-directed by Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie, the play follows Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and epidemiologist Michael Baker ahead of last year’s decision to lockdown the country.

“It is a behind the scenes glimpse into how these remarkable people were thinking and feeling at the time,” Harcourt wrote on Instagram.

 

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The play is set to premiere at Bats in Wellington in April with hopes of a nationwide tour.

12.55pm: Three new MIQ Covid-19 cases; none in the community

There are three new cases of Covid-19 in managed isolation and none in the community, the Ministry of Health has announced. One of these cases is classified as historical and deemed not infectious.

Two cases which were reported yesterday have been reclassified as “under investigation” as they are likely to be historical cases which may have previously been reported overseas.

Of today’s cases, one arrived from the United States and one – the historical case – came from Indonesia. The location of origin of the third case is currently unknown but they transited through Singapore.

Twelve previously reported cases have now recovered. The total number of active cases in New Zealand is 61 and the total number of confirmed cases is 1,952. The total number of tests processed by laboratories to date is 1,541,701.

On Tuesday, 4,106 tests were processed. The seven-day rolling average up to yesterday is 5,342 tests processed.

11.50am: Finance minister touts strong employment stats

Grant Robertson said the government’s “decisive” action during the Covid-19 pandemic is the cause of new stats showing a healthy drop in unemployment.

As detailed in the 10.55am update, unemployment dropped to 4.9% in the December quarter – well below financial predictions.

“Construction jobs rose by 21,000 annually, which included those working as plumbers, electricians, and roofers. This more than offset the impact of Covid-19 on tourism-related industries,” Robertson said in a statement.

“Māori employment is up 5,100 from a year ago. Our focus is on keeping the economy moving in the right direction and building back better, including investing heavily in education, skills and training.”

New Zealand’s unemployment rate is below the OECD average of 6.9%, along with Australia and the United States (6.8%) and Canada (8.7%)

10.55am: Unemployment returns to 2017 levels

Updated

Unemployment dropped to 4.9% in the December 2020 quarter, down from 5.3% in September.

It’s a return to levels seen in the years before Covid-19 – with the unemployment rate in March 2017 also being 4.7%.

Stats NZ said that before the September 2020 quarter, the unemployment rate had been trending downwards from a peak rate of 6.7% in September 2012.

‘Remarkably strong economy, remarkably low unemployment’ 

KiwiBank’s economists are stunned by the sudden drop in unemployment at the end of 2020, saying it went against their expectations. The bank had estimated unemployment to settle at 5.4% – a slight deterioration on the previous quarter.

However, the bank still anticipates the unemployment rate to peak a little higher in the first half of this year.

“Companies are battling supply disruptions, surges in costs, and a dearth in foreign visitor demand. That said, we’ve found ourselves in a much better place,” say the economists. “There’s nowhere else you’d rather be in the world right now. And the labour market data reflects the resilience of the Kiwi economy. Since bouncing out of lockdown, our economy has outperformed most developed economies around the world.”

The bank says construction is the place to work, with the industry employing more than 13,000 people in the December quarter.

10.30am: Bezos steps down as Amazon chief

Jeff Bezos has announced plans to step down as CEO of the company he founded and transition to a role on the company’s board.

As CNBC News reported, Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy will replace Jeff Bezos as later this year. Bezos will move to executive chair of the Amazon board.

“I’m excited to announce that this Q3 I’ll transition to executive chair of the Amazon Board and Andy Jassy will become CEO,” Bezos said in a letter to employees. “I intend to focus my energies and attention on new products and early initiatives. Andy is well known inside the company and has been at Amazon almost as long as I have. He will be an outstanding leader, and he has my full confidence.”

10.15am: Vaccine d-day: announcement coming this afternoon

We’ll know today whether or not Medsafe has approved the Covid-19 Pfizer vaccine.

Ashley Bloomfield has scheduled a press conference for 2.45pm this afternoon alongside Medsafe Group Manager Chris James to explain Medsafe’s decision making process. It will follow a media stand-up by Jacinda Ardern at roughly 1.30pm from Northland.

While there is no indication yet whether or not the vaccine has been given provisional approval, the Pfizer jab is one of the biggest success stories so far in the fight against the coronavirus. It has so far been approved in a number of countries, including the UK, Australia, Singapore and the US.

If approved, it would be the first to get sign-off in New Zealand. So far, the country has ordered 1.5 million doses which are expected to be delivered starting from next month.

9.30am: Collins still has no position on conversion therapy

National’s leader Judith Collins has not yet followed through on her pre-election promise to research conversion therapy.

Before the October vote, Collins refused to commit to outlawing the practice if she were elected prime minister.

Asked this week by Newstalk ZB’s Aaron Dahmen, Collins said National still has no stance on the matter.

Collins, however, added: “I don’t know why anyone would want to do conversion therapy.”

Her comments have prompted anger from those in the rainbow community, including Green MP Chloe Swarbrick. “Here’s why lived experience matters in what’s supposed to be representative politics. You don’t get to have ‘no position’ on something that hurts your community,” she tweeted.

Auckland Pride director Max Tweedie simply said: “Still in favour of torturing the rainbow community eh @JudithCollinsMP?”

8.50am: ‘Captain Tom’ dies after Covid battle

Captain Tom Moore – the veteran who raised more than £32 million for the UK’s National Health Service – has died at the age of 100 after a battle with Covid-19 and pneumonia.

Moore achieved his incredible fundraising feat during the first lockdown in the UK last April, walking 100 laps of his garden before turning 100.

The Daily Telegraph reported he was admitted to Bedford Hospital on Sunday having been treated for “a few weeks” for pneumonia at home.

He had been unable to get the Covid-19 vaccination due to other medication he was on, the Telegraph said.

8.00am: Health minister can’t promise more cancer care funding in next 12 months

The minister of health couldn’t confirm whether more funding for cancer treatment was on the way, following the release of a government-funded report into the country’s cancer system.

The report from the Cancer Control Agency painted a dire picture of the existing system, such as finding that Maori are more than twice as likely to die of cancer than other New Zealanders.

Speaking on RNZ this morning, minister Andrew Little would not commit to extra funding over the next 12 months.

“We will put more money into a whole heap of areas,” he said. “You’re expecting a decision [on cancer funding] a day after the report was made?”

Little said the track record of the current government has been to put money into health broadly. He called the report a “good starting point” for understanding what needs to be done to develop strategy and funding paths.

More work is under way, Little said, to reduce the inequalities found within the current system.

7.40am: Top stories from The Bulletin

In the day since an announcement from local government minister Nanaia Mahuta, the concept of Māori wards has generated both momentum and opposition. In case you missed it, the minister said the government will change the law to significantly ease the passage of Māori wards on councils – here’s a Stuff story about it. Right now, what tends to happen is that a council will vote to implement a Māori ward, local opponents then start a petition for a referendum on the question, and then the ward gets defeated, binding the council from trying again. The process is explained in this story by Alice Webb-Liddall.

In Wellington, councillor Jill Day immediately filed a motion to implement a Māori ward, reports the NZ Herald. Mayor Andy Foster signed on, along with a group of other councillors – a few others who didn’t sign were still generally supportive of the concept. A Māori ward may have actually got through in Wellington without a referendum, but with the law change it won’t be an issue. Iwi groups are also pushing for wards in Manawatū and Hamilton. At this stage, there will not be one in Christchurch. The law change will also invalidate any petitions currently circulating against Māori wards, most notably in New Plymouth – the home of former mayor Andrew Judd, who effectively lost his career after a revolt against his plans for a Māori ward.

At a national level, the politics of this are interesting. Writing on Politik, Richard Harman describes it as a defeat for Don Brash’s Hobson’s Pledge group, who have been campaigning against them. The reason? Mahuta was able to read the public mood, and see that she’d be able to get this through despite their howls of protest. At the same time, the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Audrey Young made the very fair point that Labour did not go into the recent election with this policy – they just announced it after the vote.

Read more and subscribe to The Bulletin here

7.30am: Yesterday’s headlines

MPs from Labour were welcomed onto Te Tii Marae ahead of Waitangi Day commemorations on Saturday.

There was no further spread of Covid-19 in the community following last week’s scare linked to the Pullman Hotel.

There were four new Covid-19 cases in managed isolation.

A new political poll by Roy Morgan had support for the Labour Party at 47%, and the Greens at 11.5%.

Read all the key stories in yesterday’s live updates




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