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Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

PoliticsApril 5, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, April 5: Ardern condemns ‘idiots’; 89 new cases in NZ, total 1,039

Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield. (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.

7.00pm: The day in sum

The police have issued lockdown enforcement guidelines laying out a four-step approach with escalating consequences, and Spinoff legal expert Andrew Geddis explained how it will all work.

The United States recorded more than 1,000 deaths in a single day, taking its total death toll to over 8,000.

National leader Simon Bridges suggested a delay to the election in September might be possible if the outbreak continued into winter.

Deputy director of health for Māori John Whaanga said New Zealand needed to get better data on Covid-19 and Māori, fast.

There were 89 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, bringing the total to 1,039.

The prime minister asked businesses to start planning for how they would operate under a drop in the alert level.

National called on the government to ease lockdown restrictions to allow more businesses to operate where it would be safe for them to do so.

Jacinda Ardern described as “idiots” those who refuse to follow the rules and put others at risk, including a Christchurch man who videoed himself coughing at people in a supermarket and posted it online.

6.10pm: National calls for more businesses to be allowed to open

The opposition says the government’s lockdown rules are impacting many businesses unnecessarily, and more should be allowed to reopen if they can prove they do safely.

“To date the decision making has been too arbitrary and there are too many inconsistencies. For instance, allowing dairies to open but not local butchers or greengrocers, agriculture to continue but not forestry, cigarettes to be manufactured but community newspapers cannot be printed,” economic development spokesperson Todd McClay said.

“If a business proves it can operate safely, provide contactless selling and ensure physical distancing then they should be able to operate.

“It seems wrong that New Zealanders can order goods from overseas but can’t order the same thing locally. The thousands of small home business in particulars that meet the Covid-19 health a safety guidelines should be allowed to recommence activity.”

Tonight TVNZ 1 News reported that an Auckland Chamber of Commerce survey of 1000 members found that more than a third are preparing to close for good. “People are looking at their reserves and saying ‘I can’t survive this’,” CEO Michael Barnett said.

4.15pm: Vanuatu faces cyclone amid lockdown

A category five storm is on a beeline for Vanuatu. Cyclone Harold is forecast to bring high seas, flash flooding and winds likely to top 200km/h. Rivers already have burst their banks in some parts of the country, RNZ International reports.

Vanuatu has been in a state of emergency for weeks, with the border closed and gatherings of more than five people banned. The cyclone will make it all but impossible to adhere to those requirements, which have been relaxed in some provinces. Currently Vanuatu has zero confirmed Covid-19 cases.

3.45pm: Australian parliament to sit on Wednesday

Despite social distancing measures including a nationwide rule that limits gatherings to a maximum of two people, Australia’s parliament will sit on Wednesday to pass a AU$130bn economic stimulus package. A skeleton crew – 30 members of the government and 21 members of the opposition – will convene in Canberra to pass the legislation, an event that is already looking like a giant logistical nightmare. Because of commercial flight suspensions many MPs will need to be flown in on Air Force planes, and some will be required to enter quarantine after returning home due to state border restrictions.

Once the legislation is passed parliament won’t be recalled until August, a decision that some politicians and commentators are calling a dereliction of duty during a national crisis. The government has so far resisted calls to establish a parliamentary committee similar to New Zealand’s Epidemic Response Committee that would scrutinise the government’s response while parliament is in recess.

3.30pm: Ardern calls on businesses to start planning for alert level drop

More from the prime minister earlier today on the “intensive planning” that will go into the decision to change the national alert level (see 1.30pm update). She said that while any change will be the government’s decision, other sectors should start thinking about their roles under a new alert level. “We’ve already asked some parts of the education sector to do some planning for what different alert levels look like for them and how they can help us, for instance with the intensive contact tracing that we’ll need to be able to do no matter what level we’re at for the next period.

“And so I ask all businesses, have a look at the alert level framework, think about how your business could successfully operate within each, keeping in mind that for many months to come will will need to be able to contact trace all New Zealanders that come in contact with one another. Workplaces have a role to play in that.”

2.00pm: Why is the death rate low in NZ?

One of the more encouraging data points for New Zealand so far is the relatively low number of deaths and hospitalisations.

New Zealand has over 1,000 cases and one death (though two are in serious condition).

By comparison, Britain has 42,000 confirmed cases and about 4,000 deaths. Spain has 126,000 cases and 12,000 deaths. The US has 311,000 confirmed cases and 8,476 deaths.

Speaking at today’s briefing, the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield said that was in part down to New Zealand still being at a relatively early stage in the outbreak.

But it also offered encouragement that we were alert to most of our cases. “We’ve got a much better idea than [many countries] on the overall number of cases,” he said. “I think there’s agreement around the world that where you see what appears to be a disproportionately high number of deaths compared with the overall case numbers, it’s very clear they’re not finding all the cases. We’re, I think, much closer to finding the majority or all of the cases, than other countries.”

1.30pm: 89 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, 1,039 in total

There are 89 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, has just announced. That includes 48 confirmed and 41 probable cases. It takes the total cases to 1,039.

There are 15 people in hospital, including three in ICU. One is in Wellington and two in Auckland. Two are classified as being in “a critical condition”.

An estimated 156 people have recovered.

Yesterday saw 3,093 tests completed, bringing the total to 36,209.  That means almost exactly one in 35 or 3% of tests are returning positive or are assessed as probable cases.

The total daily new cases since March 26, when New Zealand went into lockdown: 78, 85, 83, 63, 76, 58, 61, 89, 71, 82, and, today, 89.

There are now 12 significant clusters, with two new groups passing the 10-person threshold, one in Canterbury and another in Auckland. The biggest clusters remain Marist College, with 66 cases, a wedding in Bluff, at 58, and the St Patrick’s Day party in Matamata, on 56.

On ethnicity, the breakdown is 74% European, 8.3% Asian, 6.3% Māori and 3.3% Pasifika.

Among the cases, 45% have international travel links and 36% are close contacts of existing cases. There is only 1% confirmed community transmission, but treat that number with caution: 18% are still under investigation.

Bloomfield is appearing alongside the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, at today’s briefing.

“You will see that our cases have in the few days been relatively steady. We haven’t seen the exponential growth that others have, the kind that leads ultimately to an overwhelmed health system. That is a good thing. Now what we need to see those numbers start, over time, to come down,” she said.

“We can be sure that what we have done as a country since the very beginning of Covid-19 is making a difference.”

Ardern pointed to modelling that suggested without the strict measures, New Zealand might have seen 4,000 cases at this point. It “shows the difference that cumulative action can make”.

While most were adhering to requirements, there were a few “who can charitably be described as idiots”, said Ardern. The Christchurch man who videoed himself coughing at people in a supermarket and posted it online yesterday would appear in court tomorrow charged with endangering life by criminal nuisance and obstruction of an officer of health.

She noted the Google mobility data which suggested broad New Zealand adherence to the staying-at-home measures. Ardern said the measures were also in the interests of the economy, “making the pain as short as possible”.

Ardern challenged the idea that public health and economic health were alternatives. “A strategy that sacrifices people in favour of supposedly a better economic outcome is a false dichotomy and has been shown to produce the worst of both worlds: loss of life and prolonged economic pain,” she said.

Many of the opening questions at today’s press conference focused on health minister David Clark, and whether he was being hidden from the public after being reprimanded for a non-essential mountain biking excursion. TVNZ’s Q+A invited Clark on this morning, but their request was declined. The prime minister insisted that she still had confidence in Clark to do his job, and that the government was still putting prominent ministers up to answer questions.

On when and how the public will be informed that we’re leaving level four, Ardern said: “You’ll be getting that information in real time, essentially only a few hours after I do.”

She confirmed that the current alert level could not be raised any further. “This is as tight as it gets,” said Ardern, in response to a question about whether there was a secret alert level five hidden in the Beehive basement.

Ardern and Bloomfield both stressed the importance now of ensuring there aren’t any demographic or regional groups that weren’t being picked up in testing data (see 12.35pm).

12.45pm: Data on testing among Māori needed

While we know that 4% of positive Covid-19 cases are Māori, the number of Māori actually being tested remains a mystery. On The Hui this morning, deputy director of health for Māori John Whaanga wasn’t able to explain why that was the case but said that collecting accurate ethnicity data for Māori during testing needed to be a “bottom-line requirement”.

“Obviously it’s critically important for us to know not only how Covid-19 is tracking its way across the community in general, but how in particular it’s affecting our priority groups, including Māori,” he said. On average, Māori are expected to live seven years less than non-Māori, and are more likely to die from cancer, heart disease and to develop diabetes.

When asked about reports of Māori and Pasifika being turned away from testing, Whaanga said the Ministry of Health had made it clear to district health boards and other organisations its requirements around testing. “Structural racism, institutional racism is certainly something we’re not going to fix overnight … but where we’ve become aware of those things we’ve picked them up and addressed them.”

12.35pm: How will we know if it’s working?

Ahead of the 1pm briefing, how confident can we be that the elimination strategy is succeeding? Michael Baker, professor of public health at the University of Otago (Wellington) addressed this as part of a Q&A with Jim Mora on RNZ this morning.

“When we’ve done another one or two weeks’ testing we need to see data on that testing: how much testing we’re doing in the community? Does it cover the whole a reasonable range of age groups and ethnic groups?” he said. The key is to ensure “we don’t have pockets of transmission we’re missing out on”.

Beyond that, there are “some really clever ways of getting a better handle on other transmission we might be missing”, said Baker. Those include pooled testing, in which you test a whole lot of samples from people whom you don’t suspect to be positive in one go, which is more efficient. And: testing sewage – “the ultimate pooled sample”.

Baker has been one of the most influential New Zealand public health experts in this crisis. Phillip Matthews has written an excellent profile on the man and his impact, which you can read here; inspired by that, Russell Brown has published on his blog a 2006 Metro feature about The Big House in St George’s Bay Road, Parnell, and Baker’s role in it. It’s a terrific read, too – medicinal, even.

12.10pm: More than 700 police staff in isolation

Around 740 officers and staff at NZ police are currently in isolation, RNZ reports. That’s more than 5% of its workforce and includes about 400 of them frontline staff.

Chris Cahill, Police Association president, said staff had been reshuffled so it hadn’t impacted public-facing services and many of those in isolation were due to complete it shortly.

There are two known cases in the police.

11.30am: What is hydroxychloroquine?

At today’s White House press briefing president Trump again hailed the drug hydroxychloroquine, despite the absence of evidence that it is safe or effective against Covid-19. “If it were me – in fact, I might do it anyway. I may take it, OK? I may take it,” he said. “And I’ll have to ask my doctors about that, but I may take it.” The president has twice tested negative for the virus, suggesting he is considering using the drug as a preventative.

Hydroxychloroquine is a drug commonly used to treat malaria and inflammatory diseases such as lupus and arthritis. It first drew attention as a potential coronavirus treatment when Chinese researchers published a small study suggesting it can prevent Sars-CoV-2, the virus behind Covid-19, from entering cells. Then a French study found that hydroxychloroquine, particularly when combined with the antibiotic azithromycin, helped decrease levels of coronavirus in patients’ airways.

The French study is controversial among the scientific community because it included no control group, and later studies have cast serious doubt on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in treating the virus. Nevertheless the drug has been seized on as a potential “game-changer”, particularly by rightwing media in the US – prompting a surge in over-the-counter sales and leading to severe shortages among patients who need it.

10.30am: Police issue enforcement guidelines

The police have issued a range of scenarios that outline how they’ll enforce the level four restrictions in practice. For more on the legal basis for that policing and a new order under the Health Act slipped out by the government, Andrew Geddis’s piece this morning is a must-read.

As far as enforcement goes, the guidelines lay out a four-step approach, with escalating consequences. First police will “engage”, to identify whether the person is doing anything wrong. Next they will “educate”, to explain why the behaviour is wrong. The third step is to “encourage” – which is effectively a warning, with some compliance measures possible. And finally, they will “enforce” – but say they will “only resort to warnings or prosecutorial measures if absolutely necessary”. In other words, the philosophical underpinning of policing in a democracy – that it remains possible only by consent of those being policed – will still be in place.

In one scenario, an officer is called out to a park, where a group of people are playing touch rugby, who say they’re not doing anyone any harm. In step one, the officer establishes that the group don’t all live together. Secondly, they educate the group that they’re breaching an order that has been issued under the Health Act, and explain that touch rugby involves close contact, and therefore comes with the risk of spreading disease. At the encouragement step, the officer would make it clear to the group that they must go home or risk committing an offence. And finally, at the enforcement step, the group could be arrested, and fined up to $4000 – with officers being told arrests should be considered the last resort.

There’s even one scenario that involves mountain biking. The full list can be read here.

9.55am: The day ahead

It’s a double-act at 1pm, with the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, and the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, appearing together, though with appropriate distance, for the 1pm media briefing at the Beehive. We’ll have updates as they happen here.

9.30am: Election delay possible – Bridges

Asked on TVNZ’s Q+A whether the September general election would need to be delayed, Simon Bridges said it was too soon to judge, but that it was something that might need to happen. Like the government, he was “resolutely focused on Covid-19 for the moment”, said the National Party leader. But were the lockdown to “drag on for much longer than a month”, the idea of voting in five months time would be “much, much more fraught”.

7.30am: Global news lines

What was the human toll of Covid-19 in Wuhan, the city where it began? The Chinese government says 2,563 lost their lives in Wuhan. “But evidence emerging from the city as it stirs from its two-month hibernation suggests that the real death toll is exponentially higher,” reports the Washington Post.

In Russia, where cities are going into lockdown, Moscow has deployed a network of tens of thousands of cameras to undertake facial recognition surveillance. Combined with mobile phone tracking, it’s all being done in the name of the Covid-19 fight, but there are worries that the Kremlin may want to keep it beyond that.

The brutality of the coronavirus continues to batter New York State, where Saturday saw more than 600 Covid-19 deaths.

The UK Labour Party has a new leader. His name is Keir Starmer – Sir Keir Starmer indeed – and his election on the first round represents the end of the Jeremy Corbyn years. A former director of public prosecutions, he’s pledged to unite the factionalised party. And he’s pledged broad support for the Boris Johnson government’s Covid-19 response.

And a reminder, people of New Zealand: Put your clocks back for the winter.

6.15am: Are we flattening that curve?

Welcome to our rolling updates of the Covid-19 story, brought to you today by Toby Manhire and Catherine McGregor.

The official number of Covid-19 cases in New Zealand as of yesterday was 950, and it’s likely that will go into four figures today. This needn’t be cause for alarm, however. More important than the aggregate is the growth. In recent days we’ve been seeing a consistent increase but, critically, one that is not increasing exponentially.

As a reminder, these are the daily new cases since March 26, when New Zealand went into lockdown: 78, 85, 83, 63, 76, 58, 61, 89, 71, and, yesterday, 82. Across that period, the number of tests processed has grown and the criteria for testing broadened, so the proportion of positive tests has lessened.

Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health, said yesterday: “I would want to see probably another two or three days before we start to know is that definitely a flattening off. Then if it was confirmed we would expect in the coming days that the number of new cases each day would continue to drop.”

In other headlines yesterday:

  • Increasing economic nationalism and bidding wars disrupted normal supply chains, with the US being accused of “modern piracy“.
  • A woman was charged with common assault after allegedly punching a supermarket employee in the face in Warkworth.
  • A set of hard-and-fast rules in the form of a legal order was issued by the government.

6.00am: On The Spinoff

In case you missed it, some new reading: 

For all The Spinoff’s latest coverage of Covid-19 see here.


Keep going!