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Finance Minister Grant Robertson at a Covid-19 media conference at Parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Finance Minister Grant Robertson at a Covid-19 media conference at Parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

PoliticsApril 3, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, April 3: New cases in NZ; David Clark apologises to PM

Finance Minister Grant Robertson at a Covid-19 media conference at Parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Finance Minister Grant Robertson at a Covid-19 media conference at Parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

For all The Spinoff’s latest coverage of Covid-19 see here. Read Siouxsie Wiles’s work hereNew Zealand is currently in alert level four. The country is shut down, apart from essential services. For updated official government advice, see here.

The Spinoff’s coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak is funded by The Spinoff Members. To support this work, join The Spinoff Members here.

On live updates this afternoon and evening: Catherine McGregor

6.30pm: On The Spinoff today

The latest in data genius Chris McDowall’s fascinating series of interactive graphs charting the spread (and containment) of Covid-19 in New Zealand.

Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris share Covid-19 prevention tips especially for apartment dwellers

New Zealander Paula Simpson writes from her home in India, where the government is attempting to put a staggering 1.3 billion people under lockdown.

A group of university students share advice for other students struggling to stay motivated and mentally healthy away from campus.

There’s a bitter dispute between now-shuttered Bauer Media and the government over whether Covid-19 really was the reason for the magazine giant’s closure.

Meanwhile Spinoff managing editor Duncan Greive looks at how the decision to classify magazines as ‘non-essential’ put Bauer in a near-impossible financial position

90-year-old author Renée writes a Lockdown Letter from her home on the Kāpiti Coast.

We talk to a New Zealand Indian man still struggling to come to terms with missing his father’s funeral back home – and with the travel agent who tried unsuccessfully to get him onto a flight

3.20pm: Emergency measures introduced to stave off insolvencies

Finance minister Grant Robertson has announced the government will be introducing legislation to make changes to the Companies Act to help companies facing insolvency due to Covid-19.

Directors of companies facing significant liquidity problems due to Covid-19 will be offered a temporary a safe harbour from insolvency duties under the Companies Act, said Robertson. Other temporary measures include enabling companies to place existing debts into hibernation (on agreement of at least 50% of their creditors) until they’re able to start trading normally, allowing the use of electronic signatures, and extending deadlines for company meetings and annual returns.

“They must not be seen as a workaround for the obligations that businesses have to creditors or the responsibilities of directors to act in good faith,” Robertson said.

The legislation will be introduced to parliament as soon as possible and will be retrospective to today.

“It is inevitable that some businesses are going to go into liquidation but these measures provide an accessible and pragmatic means for some businesses to weather the storm in a way that does as little harm as possible to their creditors’ interests,” he said.

Robertson also announced the wage subsidy scheme has now paid out $4.8bn over the last two weeks to nearly 800,000 New Zealanders, 120,000 of whom are sole traders or self-employed.

2.15pm: Health minister apologises for mountain bike jaunt

Health minister David Clark has apologised to the prime minister for flouting the lockdown rules by driving 2.3km from his Dunedin home to go mountain biking. “I spoke to the health minister last night, who apologised to me,” Jacinda Ardern said in a statement. “It’s my expectation that ministers set the standards we are asking New Zealanders to follow.

“People can go outside to get fresh air and drive short distances if needed, but we have asked people to avoid activities where there is a higher risk of injury, and the minister should have followed that guidance.”

Clark and his bike were photographed at Signal Hill on the outskirts of Dunedin yesterday. Though the photographer was standing some distance away, he knew it was the health minister because of the vehicle from which he emerged: a Toyota Hiace van emblazoned with Clark’s own face.

1.30pm: Documents weren’t secret, says Civil Defence

Civil Defence Emergency Management director Sarah Stuart-Black said earlier reports of a “confidential government plan” were wrong, and the documents in question were never intended to be kept secret.

She said the National Action Plan would be distributed widely, and that the documents “set out what our overall mission is, what our objectives are, and the high-level approach and tasks that will be undertaken to achieve our objectives”.

Stuart-Black also spoke of support for older New Zealanders, saying that since March 30, the Ministry of Social Development’s regional commissioners have coordinated phone calls to older people who may not be aware of how to get help.

The calls have started with a small group but will widen to include other high-needs older people. An email has also gone out to 324,000 seniors to ensure them payments would continue, and that their winter energy payment would double.

1.00pm: Ministry announces new cases

There are 71 new Covid-19 cases in New Zealand, 49 confirmed and 22 probable, Dr Ashley Bloomfield told media today. There have been no additional deaths, meaning the toll for New Zealand remains at one.

Bloomfield said there were now 10 significant clusters located in Napier, Wellington, Hamilton, Auckland, Bluff, Matamata and Waitākere. The three biggest clusters are Auckland’s Marist College, with 59 cases, the Bluff cluster, with 53, and the Matamata cluster, with 49 cases.

Around the country, 13 people are in hospital, and one is in intensive care. All are in a stable condition. 103 patients have recovered to date.

Tests were averaging at just over 2000 per day, and there have been 29,485 to date. Yesterday marked a high of 3446 tests being processed.

A link to overseas travel has now dropped below half of cases, at 49%, while 33% of cases have links to confirmed cases. Just 1% of cases have been confirmed as community transmission, but 17% are under investigation and Bloomfield said he expects many of them to end up being confirmed as community transmission.

Bloomfield also summarised some updated information from the World Health Organisation about transmission. He said the data showed “Covid-19 is clearly primarily transmitted from symptomatic people, to others who are in close contact, via respiratory droplets, by direct contact with each other, or by direct contact with infected surfaces”.

He said it seems people are most infectious early on in the infection process, and that may include just before they develop symptoms. The average time between coming into contact with the virus and developing symptoms “was around five to six days”. Asymptomatic transmission took place via the same methods as symptomatic transmission, so also through respiratory droplets or contaminated surfaces.

“There are very few reports of laboratory-confirmed cases of people who are truly asymptomatic,” he said. Bloomfield added that no matter what the symptomatic status of a patient was, the same precautions around hand hygiene and social distancing would still offer protection.

Bloomfield mentioned the $30m funding package announced for general practices and pharmacies yesterday, saying that a general practice with 5000 people registered would receive around $12,000 upfront, with a high-needs practice receiving around $22,000.

Regarding recent arrivals at the border, Bloomfield said numbers had dropped over the past few days, with 300 people arriving yesterday. He said 145 people were currently in quarantine – that is they arrived at the border with symptoms – and 1405 were in managed isolation, meaning they were asymptomatic but had no plans for self-isolation.

Asked about data relating to the impact on Māori, Bloomfield said, “We know from previous pandemics and situations like this that Māori and also other populations like Pacific tend to be at higher risk of poor outcomes, so we want to have good ethnicity data”.

This follows commentaries from the likes of Mike Hosking and Barry Soper that funds allocated to Maori relating to Covid-19 were examples of “political correctness”.

12.40pm: Deer processing plant closes

A Silver Fern Farms deer processing plant in Kennington in the lower South Island has been closed after several workers tested positive for Covid-19, reports Stuff. The story indicates that working conditions at the plant involved close contact between people, so there is the potential for further exposure. It won’t reopen until at least April 8.

11.45am: Grim worldwide milestones reached

According to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker, the number of Covid-19 cases around the world has gone past 1 million. The US has the largest individual share of those cases, with more than 240,000. However, a word of caution here – with many countries being accused of under-reporting cases, the actual number is likely much higher. The death toll has also passed 50,000, with the worst tolls in Italy and Spain.

11.15am: Today’s 1.00pm press conference

Today’s lineup for the 1.00pm press conference includes two speakers. We’ll hear from director of Civil Defence Emergency Management Sarah Stuart-Black, and MOH director-general Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

11.00am: Controversy over Bauer/government claims

Internal memos from NZ’s biggest magazine company, which announced its sudden closure yesterday, state they were lobbying to change a ban on publication. But the minister responsible, Kris Faafoi, has doubled down on rejecting that position, calling those internal communications ‘contradictory’ to what they said to him directly.

Read Duncan Greive’s full story on the diverging claims here.

10.05am: SkyCity announces hundreds of redundancies

About 200 employees of SkyCity are being made redundant, according to a market announcement to the NZX, as the casino and entertainment group deals with a massive slump in revenue. Along with that, about 90% of the company’s workforce have been stood down, with no clarity on when (or if) they’ll be back at work any time soon.

The Covid-19 downturn has also hit SkyCity’s property projects hard. No work is currently possible on their Horizon Hotel or International Convention Centre projects, and in addition to that, around 50 capital development projects in New Zealand have been put on hold.

Executives have volunteered to take pay cuts of between 20%-40%, and board of director fees will be cut by 50% for the rest of the financial year.

7.50am: Goldsmith wants more data, ponders elevated wage subsidies

In an interview on RNZ’s Morning Report, National finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith has demanded greater transparency from the government in regards to its modelling of the impact of Covid-19 on New Zealand’s economy. “New Zealand as a society is going to be having to make very difficult decisions in the weeks and months ahead, and the government needs to make sure that we are equipped the information we need to make those decisions sensibly,” he told Corin Dann. He cited the shocking unemployment figures out of the US overnight, saying, “we need to know the economic consequences of the decisions which are being made”.

When asked if the wage subsidy was working, Goldsmith said the absence of data made that difficult to assess. “It was set up early on, when we were talking about the West Coast and tourism. Now very large parts of the economy have zero revenue.” He pointed to the likes of the UK and Germany as countries which are paying a higher percentage of the salary of furloughed workers. “That’s expensive,” said Goldsmith, “but it may be what’s required.”

7.30am: The Bulletin – Bauer’s fall leads a horror week for NZ media

Taken from our essential daily 7am news roundup – sign up for The Spinoff’s newsletters here

It had always been clear that this was going to be a difficult time for the media, with the Covid-19 downturn hitting already battered budgets. But could anything on this scale have been expected so suddenly? In the space of a week, the industry has been completely upended, and hundreds of people have been put out of work, across multiple companies. 

On Monday it was Radio Sport, which was indefinitely taken off air after decades of broadcasting. As the week went on, MediaWorks asked (or told) all of its staff to take a 15% pay cut. Stuff and the NZ Herald slashed its contributor budgets for contractors and freelancers, ending the tenures of many long-standing columnists in the process. There have been unconfirmed rumours of redundancies swirling around other parts of the industry. 

But the biggest blow was the immediate closure of magazine publisher Bauer NZ, which put out titles including the Listener, North & South, Metro, Kia Ora, NZ Women’s Weekly, and many more. Some of the magazines in its stable had existed since the 1930s. In a flash, all were gone, along with more than 200 jobs. A collection of writers paid tributes to the publications, detailing what they had meant to them throughout their lives. 

 Who’s fault was it that the publications were shut down? Opinions here are deeply polarised, and I’m not going to offer one of my own. Some blame has been directed at the government, which ruled that magazines were not an essential service, and so couldn’t stay in business during the shutdown – that position was later somewhat reversed for community papers. As this storming op-ed from Duncan Greive argues, the long lead-time of magazine production and long production cycles meant massive uncertainty for not just this month, but many more down the track – and all the while competitor newspaper insert magazines like Viva could continue. 

The government in turn has argued that Bauer made no effort whatsoever to claim the wage subsidy that they would have been entitled to, nor any form of government support. Others have speculated that Bauer had been intending to offload the titles for a long time anyway, and Covid-19 provided a convenient excuse. The German family that owns the parent company is worth billions, so perhaps could have worn short-term losses – though all media companies are being punished by declining advertising revenues now, so the losses would have lasted longer. Mediawatch spoke to former Bauer NZ CEO Paul Dykzeul, who said the move would likely have been planned for a while. 

Whatever the ultimate cause is, the week of closures and cutbacks dramatically raises the stakes for the industry as a whole. According to broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi, there could be some sort of support for the commercial side of the industry in the medium term. But as Henry Cooke at Stuff writes, medium term could be too late for a lot of these companies, which are on the brink now. 

It might not be the end for all of the Bauer titles. Business Desk (paywalled) reports buyers might still be considering their options, and looking for deals on some of the higher-profile publications. Media commentator Gavin Ellis was quoted in the story suggesting the “NZ Listener and Woman’s Weekly would both be likely candidates” for such an acquisition. But it’s not a simple case of signing over the mastheads and picking up where they left off, and the costs of getting them back off the ground will be significant.

Just quickly, a message from The Spinoff editor Toby Manhire:

“Here at The Spinoff, members’ support is more important than ever as the Covid-19 crisis lays waste to large chunks of our commercial work. It’s a tight time for everyone, of course, but if you’re able to, please consider joining Spinoff Members to help us stay afloat and keep producing work by the likes of Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, whose collaborations have had a real impact in New Zealand and around the world.”

Wellington City Council is facing a budget shortfall of around $70 million amid the Covid-19 crunch, reports the NZ Herald’s Georgina Campbell. Income has crashed from revenue generators like parking meters and the airport, and at the same time the Council is under pressure to slow or halt rates rises, or even a full deferral of this year’s rates bill for those that have been affected by the downturn. 

89 new cases of Covid-19 were reported yesterday, the largest single-day increase New Zealand has seen. Chris McDowall has updated his daily series of charts, which give an indication of the new case load over this week – a slight slowdown in new cases, followed by a slight speeding up – overall the rate of increase is fairly consistent. 10 more people have recovered, which has been clarified as “without symptoms for 48 hours” following an illness. Updates on new cases and many more news developments from yesterday can be found on our live updates page, including but not limited to an essential worker leave scheme being announced, police sending tracking texts to the phones of new arrivals, a new exit plan for foreign nationals in NZ, concerns about testing, and more. Today’s live updates can be found here

If you’re wondering about where all the flour has gone, it’s still around – it’s the packaging which is the problem. Stuff’s Kirsty Lawrence reports that the shortages are being caused by an explosion in retail purchasing, with commercial operators generally getting their flour in huge quantities. Some supermarkets are now starting to look at stocking 20kg bags, because the smaller packages can take weeks to arrive. 

Here’s a fairly easily avoidable headline for David Clark: Health Minister drives to local park to ride his mountain bike, amid coronavirus lockdown, reports Stuff. A tip-off was made to the journalists from a member of the public, who photographed Clark’s van in an otherwise empty carpark. Clark said he was trying to model healthy exercise behaviour, the park was in his local area, and the track he rode was rated ‘easy’ and so low-risk. But it comes at a time when many people are confused about whether there are any exceptions to the general ‘stay at home’ rule. I hope Clark’s a confident cyclist, because we’ve all seen ministers get told ‘on yer bike’ for similar sorts of fumbles. 

Earlier in the week we had a story about rain bringing relief for farmers. But Aucklanders are being warned that they’re still in a state of drought. One News reports the strong warning from Watercare, which says only about two thirds of the average rainfall of the year to date has come down so far, and water storage dams are now down to half full. Their directive is that people need to stop washing their cars or water blasting their houses. Of course, they also advise people to continue washing their hands properly – but think about this – if we don’t cut out non-essential water use, will there be any left for hand washing? 

7.00am: Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris on how to stay safe in apartments

The pair return with a new story and gif explaining the unique challenges of bubbles in apartment buildings, and how to stay safe in communal areas.

“The main thing to note is that an apartment block isn’t one big bubble. Instead it’s a collection of little bubbles that need to stay away from each other, just in case someone is incubating Covid-19. If you do live in an apartment block, here’s what that means for you.

If you’re lucky enough to have communal areas like gyms and pools, sorry, but they must be shut. No nipping over to each other’s apartments or going out to exercise together. Instead, you must stay two metres away from other people in the building. Make sure you wash your hands frequently, but especially before leaving your apartment, and immediately when you return.”

Read the full story on The Spinoff

6.00am: Devastating US unemployment data obliterates records

Two weeks ago, the largest number of Americans who had filed for unemployment benefits in a single week was 695,000, a record which had stood since the early days of the Reagan administration. Last week it was shattered, when over 3m applied. Overnight, even that figure was demolished, with 6.6m filing claims – not far off 10 times a record which had stood for nearly four decades. The US is far from alone in such a catastrophic rise, with Norway’s unemployment rate climbing from 2.3% to 10.4% in a single month, 800,000 laid off in Spain and over 1m in the UK. Even with massive stimulus being enacted, economists are routinely invoking the depths of the great depression when assessing the virus’ likely impact.

On the health side, two grim milestones loom large, with the world closing in on 1m confirmed cases, and 50,000 deaths. The virus is rampant in the US, blasting through 200,000 infections, with New York alone now having more cases than any nation save Italy or Spain. This extraordinary chart on the Guardian shows that both the latter nations appear to have finally started to curve downwards for new cases, while the US remains on a path unlike any other. Of particular concern is that it is also perilously low on key medical items, with president Trump admitting the federal government’s reserve of crucial PPE supplies is nearly gone.

The south-east Asian nations which responded best and fastest to the early stages of the pandemic are now at risk of a second wave, reports the Guardian. A combination of border closures and aggressive contact tracing kept the likes of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore from experiencing the kind of outbreaks seen in the west, often without major lockdowns. But as citizens have returned from overseas, their cases are ticking up again, raising fears that the region’s densely populated cities could see the virus spread again. This story, again from the Guardian, helps detail the different approaches of a basket of countries, helping explain how some have managed to keep the virus under far better control than others. Germany started creating millions of test kits as soon as Covid-19 emerged, in January, for example, while Iceland has tested a higher proportion of its population than any other country on earth.

5.45am: Yesterday’s key New Zealand stories

  • Director-general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, announced 89 new cases of Covid-19.
  • Bauer Media NZ announced it was closing in response to the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The prime minister said the German-owned company should have signed up for the wage subsidy scheme and remained open.
  • Police commissioner Mike Bush faced questions around the recent returnees from overseas, saying he believed police were texting recent arrivals, who had to give consent to be monitored via location services on their phones.
  • Prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced a leave scheme for essential workers and an exit plan for foreign nationals.
  • Concerns were raised around the safety of video conferencing platform Zoom, which the government has used for cabinet meetings.
  • DHBs and doctors worried about the widening of testing criteria resulting in testing centres being overwhelmed.
  • Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since World War II.

For more, check out yesterday’s live updates

Keep going!