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)

PoliticsMay 8, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, May 8: Two new confirmed cases; massive government document dump

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 here. New Zealand is currently in alert level three – read The Spinoff’s giant explainer about what that means here. For 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.

6.55pm: The day in sum

There were two new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand today

One of these was a nurse who had treated patients from the St Margarets cluster at Waitākere Hospital; the other was a probable case whose status had been upgraded to confirmed

Laboratories completed 7,812 tests yesterday, a record high daily total

Ashley Bloomfield assured the country that the Covid-19 testing system is ready to handle a move down alert levels

The government released thousands of pages of documents relating to their decision-making around Covid-19

Grant Robertson stressed that unlike most years, next week’s budget will not contain the government’s full spending plans for the year ahead, but “will be just one moment on our road to recovery”

Business associations put pressure on the government to move to level two as quickly as possible, while others like Dr Siouxsie Wiles said more time was needed

It was reported that up to half of NZ Rugby’s staff are to be laid off as a result of the downturn in revenue due to Covid-19

5.30pm: On The Spinoff today

The latest Covid-19 numbers mapped and charted by Chris McDowall

The international praise of Jacinda Ardern’s response to Covid-19 means that New Zealand has the ear of the world right now – so how best to use it?

He started as a journalist, became a producer, and is now one of NZ’s most successful TV creators – listen as Bailey Mackey joins Duncan Greive on media podcast The Fold

A New Zealander-turned-Tasmanian makes the case for a post-Covid bubble arrangement in which Tasmania essentially becomes the West Island

Auckland Zoo is more online than ever thanks to Covid-19, Josie Adams found out

Been (re)watching Twilight in isolation? Wondering what Paramore are up to now? Singer Hayley Williams has a new solo album coming out, and she spoke to The Spinoff about it

It is Mother’s Day on Sunday. If you’re at a loss for gift ideas, real-life mum Emily Writes has some suggestions

3.50pm: Big government document dump

The government has released thousands of pages of documents around its Covid-19 decision-making processes this afternoon. The document dump includes “papers, minutes, and key advice,” the earliest dating back to the 28th of January, related to decisions made up to April 17. Any final decisions made after that date will be released later.

The documents have been separated into nine categories: alert levels and restrictions, border, education, health response, housing, income support measures, offshore issues, supporting the economy and wage subsidy and leave schemes.

Revelations from the documents include Treasury and the IRD shutting down proposals to give businesses a GST break, and that the wage subsidy scheme was initially capped at $150,000 per business, which would have meant it wasn’t available to over half of the workforce, before Treasury instructed the government to remove the cap. Documents also show the shortcomings of the contact tracing system in the early days, and that the government estimates it will cost around $14 million to bring home New Zealanders from overseas.

Newshub, meanwhile, reports that a leaked internal memo told government ministers not to talk to reporters about the documents, and that any written statements were to be signed off on by the prime minister.

3.30pm: Business associations pressure government to move to level two

The Employers and Manufacturers Association has hit out at speculation the government may take a staggered approach to introducing alert level two. In a release issued this afternoon, EMA chief executive Brett O’Riley said talk of things like a “level 2.5” was “confusing at a time when business really needs clarity”. He urged the government to show more trust in businesses, who he said had already demonstrated that they understood health and safety and had worked hard to implement the guidelines under alert level three. “Delays because the health authorities haven’t sorted their track and trace system or a half step between Levels 3 and 2 will just create resentment and confusion in the community and probably lead to more widespread breaches of guidelines as businesses and the communities around them vent their frustrations,” O’Riley warned.

BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope is unsurprisingly on the same page. In a separate media release sent out this afternoon, he said given the low case numbers this week, apparent lack of community transmission and effective tracing and testing measures, the government should absolutely decide to move to level two when cabinet meets on Monday. “Every day counts for thousands of businesses that are still closed,” he said. “Many enterprises are living in fear of not being able to re-open, while others fear reopening in an economy that’s been closed so long it can no longer sustain their business.”

2.40pm Taranaki ending iwi checkpoints

Today will be the final day of iwi community checkpoints in the Taranaki region, Ngā Iwi o Taranaki has announced. North Taranaki iwi spokesperson Liana Poutu said the checkpoints had been a way of “encouraging appropriate Alert Level 3 travel behaviour, educating travellers and reducing unnecessary travel into our rohe.” While inter-regional travel has not been permitted under levels 4 or 3, checkpoints reported as many as 64.5% of motorists stopped at the Pātea checkpoint had come from outside the region, according to a statement released today. Complete data would be shared with relevant agencies and used to assist with health modelling for the national pandemic response, it said.

2.15pm: Heaps of new graphs to look at

Light vehicle traffic in New Zealand’s major centres has roughly doubled since the end of level four, but is still about half the pre-lockdown level, new statistics released by Stats NZ show. The traffic stats are among a variety of new graphs showing the economic, social and health impacts of Covid-19 that are now available to be pored over on Stats NZ’s Covid-19 Portal. Other graphs illustrate the rise in things like electricity and broadband usage under lockdown, and increases in unemployment and benefit numbers.

Friday is also the day Treasury releases it’s weekly economic dashboard. Today’s edition (PDF) shows a continued grim employment outlook, while consumer spending is starting to pick back up a little under level three.

1.45pm: The latest chart from Chris McDowall

More to come later this afternoon on The Spinoff.

1.05pm: Two new confirmed cases, including hospital staffer

Two new confirmed cases of Covid-19 have been announced today.

One is a Waitematā DHB nurse who cared for Covid-19 patients from St Margaret’s rest home at Waitākere Hospital.

Affected areas at Waitākere Hospital remain closed to further admissions and many precautions had been in place over the last week, director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay said.

The other is a probable case that has now been confirmed.

The combined total of confirmed and probable cases is now 1,490, made up of 1,141 confirmed cases and 349 probable cases.

There are now 1,347 people reported as having recovered from Covid-19, which is 90% of all cases. That is an increase of 15 since yesterday.

There are three people in hospital with Covid-19. One is in Auckland City, one in Middlemore and the third is in North Shore Hospital. None are in ICU.

There are no additional deaths to report.

Yesterday laboratories completed another record-high number of tests, 7,812. That brings the total number of tests completed in New Zealand to 175,835, which equates to 3.5% of the population, putting New Zealand in the top 20 countries in the world per capita for testing, McElnay said.

New Zealand now has the capacity to perform up to 12,535 tests per day, she added.

Robertson’s economic updates

Grant Robertson has stressed that the budget will not contain the government’s full spending plans for the year ahead, in contrast to other budgets.

“This year’s budget will be just one moment on our road to recovery,” Robertson said. “Normally the budget day represents the total of the government’s economic plans and spends for the year ahead. That won’t be the case this time.”

He says this is because of the fluid and uncertain economic picture ahead, and it is not yet clear how bad things will get.

Ministry of Social Development numbers show jobseeker support payments are up by about 40,000 people since March 20, Robertson said, which represents 0.8% of our total population. For comparison, Robertson said in the US that number was around 10% of the population.

Since the lockdown, 4,718 people have returned from overseas and gone onto the jobseeker benefit, compared to 424 last year.

“We know that [these numbers] will continue to grow,” Robertson said. “We will continue to do all we can to mitigate this through our significant investments.”

He says the “very open scheme” of the wage subsidy suited the environment in which it was introduced, and it has “served its purpose”.

“We’ll have more to say about what comes next,” he said, telegraphing future support both for the unemployed and business.

Robertson also said the government is working on a plan with the tourism industry to get it going again, with more to be announced soon.

There was a question near the end of the press conference about whether Robertson had read a paper authored by former Labour finance minister (and architect of Rogernomics) Roger Douglas. “No,” was the terse reply from the incumbent.

Robertson’s bittersweet message for sport

Wearing his beloved sports minister hat, Robertson encouraged clubs not to rush back into activities if and when level two comes into play.

“Get everyone in your team or your club on the same page and make sure they’re confident that the systems are in place to keep everyone safe,” he said.

Robertson spoke about speculation about international competitions setting up shop in New Zealand, saying that such talk was probably more reflective of people wishing sport would come back, rather than any serious plans.

He also managed to slip the phrase “rolling maul” into an update about the budget.

12.35pm: Watch live – the 1pm press conference

Today we’ll have the standard Friday lineup of finance minister Grant Robertson, and director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay.

As always, you can watch it here:

12.25pm: Testing system capability ready for next phase, says Bloomfield

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has assured the country that the Covid-19 testing system is ready to handle a move down alert levels.

“Testing is an essential part of New Zealand’s elimination strategy and is the key starting point for identifying and containing the spread of the virus,” Bloomfield says.

In a release, he outlined the ministry’s process for how they would run testing at level two, including:

– quickly identify all new cases of the virus in order to isolate them and trace and quarantine their contacts;
– ensure that testing is accessible to all groups fairly;
– identify any undetected community spread in New Zealand; and
– monitor for Covid-19 in people at higher risk of exposure.

We’ll hear more from director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay at the 1pm press conference today.

11.40am: Financial statements released ahead of the budget

A release from Treasury has outlined the state of the government’s finances for the nine months up to March 31, 2020. As such, they don’t necessarily take into account the absolute up to the minute spending situation.

Core Crown tax revenue has come in about half a billion dollars ahead of forecasts, at $65.9bn. However, core Crown expenses are $4bn more than expected, in large part because of wage subsidies paid out near the end of March.

That has led to an operating balance before gains and losses (OBEGAL) deficit, instead of the surplus that was projected this time last year.

In a release, finance minister Grant Robertson said the figures showed the books were in good shape before Covid-19 struck, and that the government acted swiftly to counter the damage.

“We used our Government’s strong balance sheet to move quickly with our public health response, reduce the impact on workers and businesses, and position the economy for recovery,” he said.

“I make no excuses for our swift and decisive actions to cushion the blow as Covid-19 reached our shores.”

11.10am: Heavy job losses coming at NZ Rugby, even with return likely

Reports have emerged that about half of all NZ Rugby staff will be laid off, as the organisation struggles with a crisis in revenue from Covid-19. Radio NZ reported the figure, which NZ Rugby hasn’t yet confirmed, but it is clear that the reduction in staff will be severe.

It also follows a 20% pay cut imposed on staff at the start of the lockdown, and many previous warnings that job losses would be likely.

Some form of top level rugby could return under level two restrictions, which would be a godsend for both NZ Rugby and Sky TV – which the sports organisation holds a 5% stake in. If games are played, they would take place in front of empty stadiums, but the broadcast income would still make them worthwhile. The NZ Herald reports a domestic competition featuring only NZ franchises is likely to start around the middle of June.

Meanwhile, netball is also looking for a way to get back on the court. The NZ Herald reports all games in the revised ANZ Premiership will be played on one court – which makes a lot of sense, because after all, there’s no reason to take it all over the country if crowds aren’t allowed to attend. Dates for this competition will be released when the move to level two is confirmed.

10.45am: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra livestreams clock one million views across the world

While the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) has been livestreaming its concerts for many years in recent weeks the APO has turned its attention to delivering online concerts and activities to keep people entertained and engaged during lockdown.

After just a few weeks, the number of views for the Thursday evening Encore Livestreams have clocked a million people from 44 countries. APO CEO Barbara Glaser says, “We are delighted with the interest in our online activities. While we will of course always be a company led by concert hall performances, and are all feverishly keen to get back together making music again, a wonderful surprise of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the digital explosion in the arts.

“We will be reviewing our online strategies and activities into the future as it has allowed us to engage a wider audience than ever before and also bring wider profiles to some of our musicians.”

The APO Encore Livestreams take place every Thursday evening at 8pm (NZST).

10.00am: International students may be allowed in, says Robertson

Finance minister Grant Robertson has opened the door a crack for international students to return. Speaking to the Mike Hosking Breakfast this morning, he said that if progress continues on tackling Covid-19, then New Zealand will be an attractive place for students to come.

“Clearly at the moment it is not a time for people to be coming in. But if we can continue our success in getting on top of the virus, along with Australia, it’ll mark us out as a place that people want to come to, in terms of being an international student,” he said.

On quarantine protocols for such students, he said “there will need to be some pretty specific arrangements for next year, to be able to make that happen. But it is an area of opportunity, and I encourage international education providers to sit down and think about that opportunity.”

He was also quizzed on the upcoming budget, particularly elements around extra spending. So far $20bn has been spent or allocated by the government, out of an overall $52bn that it has flagged for the economic recovery. Robertson said that wouldn’t mean that $30bn would be spent in this budget, with some of that money being spent as a “continuing and sustained investment.”

You can listen to the full interview here.

9.30am: Goldsmith concerned about wait for perfection

National’s finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith has urged the country to get back to work quickly, with the announcement of what the rules will be at level two. However, he’s concerned that it will take too long to get there.

“I heard the Prime Minister say she’s a perfectionist, and I suppose the worry is, if we wait for perfection we’ll suffer huge damage, both in terms of jobs but also in terms of general health and wellbeing, so we need to get on with it,” he told Morning Report.

National has been calling for a return to level two for several days now, rather than waiting until next week or later. PM Ardern has countered that by saying that we haven’t yet seen a full replication cycle of the virus in the level three period – generally it can take up to 14 days for an infection to start showing symptoms.

Goldsmith also criticised the tight restrictions on who will be allowed into the lockup for the Budget next week – it has been limited to a tight circle of the press gallery, while bank economists and other interested parties will not be allowed in the room, because of physical distancing requirements.

9.00am: Tourism thrilled at level two tweak

A change to the level two rules means that the tourism industry can now start coming back to life, industry figures have told Radio NZ. Originally at level two, travel between regions wasn’t allowed. However, when we move back in to level two it will be allowed – for full details on the rules, read this.

So for tourism, that means operators can open up to the domestic market. Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts told Morning Report that “people were literally jumping for joy yesterday, there were smiles of faces of people who had nothing to smile about since January.” He said it was an amazing opportunity for people to start to rediscover their own country.

Of course, heavy job losses have already been felt across the industry, and the road to recovery will be long and slow.

8.30am: Updates from today’s edition of The Bulletin:

The government wouldn’t frame it in such a way, but they’ve made several recent moves which indicate they’re not taking China’s side in their geopolitical battle with the rest of the world, particularly against the US. Right now, there is a lot going on in this space – without getting too deep into it, some of the complaints being made against the government of China have a fair basis, and some of them are absurd. Within that, there is something of a proxy argument going on over the inclusion of Taiwan within the World Health Organisation, which China is currently blocking, as it considers Taiwan to be a rogue province. Now New Zealand’s politicians have got themselves involved.

If you’re wondering if it has even been noticed overseas, it has. Earlier this week, the Taiwan News reported on comments from foreign minister Winston Peters in favour of Taiwan being allowed to rejoin the WHO. Peters’ comments were taken as a statement of “firm support”, and the story talked up the friendship between NZ and Taiwan. The story also noted that PM Ardern ducked questions on whether she supported Taiwan’s inclusion, which is currently being pushed by Australia and the US. At the time, the NZ Herald’s Audrey Young wrote that public backing for the bid by Peters would cause fresh problems for the diplomatic relationship with China.

And the Chinese government noticed, and made their annoyance clear. Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva reported that the Chinese embassy put out a statement, setting out their country’s view, and warning that the one-China principle is “the political foundation of China-New Zealand relations”. Well, that story was updated later in the day with the news that New Zealand is now formally backing Taiwan’s inclusion at the WHO, it isn’t just Winston Peters’ opinion any more. For good measure, Peters also suggested that there was a split in opinion between the Chinese embassy, and the Chinese foreign minister, reports the NZ Herald. As Politik’s Richard Harman writes this morning, this all has domestic political implications too – National’s Gerry Brownlee has criticised Peters, saying the comments were “unnecessary” and risky, and says there’s no way Taiwan will get a place at the WHO.

It’s worth remembering that there has been tension with China at each end of the Covid crisis for New Zealand. Early on, travel restrictions in New Zealand were mainly aimed at China, a point that also deeply annoyed the embassy. At the time, the ambassador called for restrictions to be lifted, before it soon became clear the only direction they were moving was towards more countries being added. Since then there has been a donation of PPE and other medical supplies made by China to New Zealand – this has been a major element of Chinese diplomatic efforts all over the world over the last month. Complicating it all – China is an intensely important export market for New Zealand, which will be crucial in any economic recovery.

There’s one other bit to this, which illustrates how New Zealand is just one country among many grappling with a complex relationship here. Yesterday Newsroom’s (paywalled) Sam Sachdeva reported that NZ has quietly joined a US-led alliance being called the ‘Quad Plus’, which includes countries like Australia, India and Japan. The Diplomat reports that Australia and India are planning to build a more united front against China, as both countries have experienced a marked deterioration in relations with the superpower. Whether we like it or not, there is an increasing sense of polarisation in these diplomatic stories, and New Zealand will have no choice but to participate.

In other news, was the lockdown illegal? Right now, opinions are split, to say the least. Thomas Coughlan has reported on advice given to the government by the the solicitor-general, and obtained by Stuff, which argues that because of the widespread interference in human rights, it would only be lawful if justified by the health risks. The advice also argued that the government had to prove their measures were proportional. Attorney-general David Parker has since come out backing the legality of the lockdown on that basis.

Having said that, it is still likely to end up being tested. And on the aspect of whether or not the lockdown rules were actually enforceable in a legal sense, a story by Newstalk ZB’s Barry Soper suggests they were not, particularly during the first iteration of the legal basis of the lockdown, which may have implications for the hundreds of people prosecuted under those rules. Who’s right? As someone with no legal training I have no idea, but have no doubt that more learned folk will be working hard on this.

As for whether this all matters, I strongly encourage you to read this piece by Otago University’s Andrew Geddis – and not just because he very generously quotes The Bulletin in it. To quote him right back:

“Given that we’re dealing with the use of powers contained in a piece of legislation more than six decades old, expressed in quite terse fashion, and exercised in the midst of an emergency situation, it’s unsurprising that there’s some uncertainty about their “correct” interpretation and application. 

Having that debate involves no malice or unwarranted pedantry. Rather, it reflects a desire to get clarity about whether the claimed legal powers actually permit the very extensive actions that have been taken.”

It seems like it’s happening much sooner than normal given everything else going on, but the Budget will be unveiled next week. The NZ Herald (paywalled) has published a useful comment piece by tax expert Geof Nightingale, who has assessed the sort of spending that will take place, and the debt that will inevitably accrue as a result. So will that mean higher taxes are announced? Nightingale says that is unlikely, but at some stage tax revenue will be needed to pay that debt back. On that point, Newshub reports the PM repeatedly faced questions over whether new taxes would be introduced yesterday in parliament – Ardern didn’t rule it out, and the pair had an exchange of views.

8.00am: Yesterday’s key stories

There was one new confirmed case of Covid-19, and no new deaths

The prime minister announced the level two rules the country will operate under when we move out of level three

Legislation setting out the legal basis for level two restrictions will be introduced to parliament next week, the government said

The education minister suggested international students could be allowed in before the border officially reopens

A $25 million relief package aimed at local and regional sport, and recreation groups struggling due to Covid-19 was unveiled

Details were released on how domestic professional sport, including Investec Super Rugby and the ANZ Premiership Netball League, will work under level two

Mediaworks announced that there will be no The Block NZ on TV this year, for the first time since 2012.

Read more in yesterday’s live updates

Keep going!