Live updates, March 9: Air NZ crew member confirmed to have Russian Covid-19 variant

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for March 9. Auckland is now at alert level two, NZ at level one. Get in touch at stewart@thespinoff.co.nz 

Top stories

3.40pm: Protestors clash with police over removal of native trees

Protestors in the Auckland suburb of Avondale have descended on a site on Canal Road in an attempt to save 23 native trees from being cut down.

According to RNZ, half of the mature native trees have already been cut down. The dramatic scenes unfolding today follow the section being sold to developers to build houses.

Reports suggest protestors have mounted a crane to try to prevent the trees being removed, with police surrounding the section. Greenpeace’s Nick Young tweeted to say that contractors were at the site with “chainsaws [and] big machinery”.

3.15pm: National created two versions of election review – report

A follow-up to a news story from earlier (see: 12.40pm) on National’s review into last year’s election loss.

Newshub’s Tova O’Brien has revealed that the National Party has created two versions of its election review. One is the full, unedited report while the other is a sanitised version with all the “gory details taken out”. Those are the words, according to O’Brien, of a party insider.

Newshub has been told that the party is frustrated with the closed process after being told to disclose everything during the review process. We can, almost certainly, expect more on this at 6pm.


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1.25pm: Air NZ crew member confirmed to have Russian Covid-19 variant

The Air New Zealand crew member confirmed to have Covid-19 does not have either the UK or South African strain of the virus, genomic testing has confirmed.

Instead, genome sequencing of the air crew member has identified the “B.1.1.317 variant” of the virus – colloquially known as the Russian strain. “Unlike other variants… this variant is not currently classified as a variant of concern,” the Ministry of Health said.

Contacts of case are being advised by public health staff of the steps they need to take. “This case has a limited number of contacts and is considered to have been infectious while Auckland was in alert level three. Therefore, the wider public health risk is low,” said the ministry.

All test results received from the air crew have returned negative results, with one still outstanding. More than half the remaining contacts have returned negative tests and all 35 contacts from the vaccination centre have been contacted and given public health advice.

The crew member remains in Auckland’s quarantine facility, while their household contacts have tested negative and remain in isolation at home as a precaution.

At this stage in the investigation, a range of possible infection sources are being looked into.

Despite the Russian variant not being deemed a higher risk, some travellers in managed isolation in Queensland recently had their stay extended while officials investigated.

“Whilst this is not considered a variant of concern, little is known about the B.1.1.317 strain,” health officials in Australia said at the time.

On March 2, a traveller with the Russian strain tested positive in Australia, while their flight continued onto New Zealand. Queensland health officials said they were in contact with their New Zealand counterparts.

Meanwhile, there are four new positive cases of Covid-19 in managed isolation today. One of the four is historical and deemed not infectious. There are no new cases in the community.

1.00pm: Latest Covid-19 update imminent

The Ministry of Health is due to send out its 1pm media update on Covid-19 any moment now – and we’ll have it for you in full once it drops.

There have been no new community cases of the virus since Auckland moved up to level three more than a week ago. Over the weekend, an Air NZ crew member tested positive – although the risk to the public is deemed low.

Watch this space – we’ll have the latest info shortly.

12.40pm: National Party review found ‘disunity, leaks, poor behaviour’ contributed to election loss

A review into the National Party’s disastrous 2020 election campaign is unlikely to be released in full – but the party’s caucus has been warned it found “disunity, leaks, and poor behaviour” were key to the election night result.

National’s president Peter Goodfellow has emailed party members saying they will be invited to a series of meetings over the next week to see a “summary” of the review and its recommendations.

As the Herald’s Claire Trevett reported, that summary is likely to be released publicly this week. The Herald was told the report was so scathing that some did not want the caucus to see it, fearing it would be leaked in full or undermine the party’s attempts to rebuild.

Goodfellow described the review as “fulsome, detailed and contained concrete recommendations for improvement” and that the board accepted all of the recommendations in the review. Rebuilding “a united, high functioning team must be out number one priority,” the email said.

On The Spinoff: Keep your complaints about te reo Māori to yourself, BSA rules

Here’s an extract from Leonie Hayden’s report:

The regulatory body that investigates complaints about our TV and radio programmes has today made it clear that the use of te reo Māori is not a breach of any broadcasting standard.

Since June last year, the Broadcasting Standards Authority has received 27 complaints about the use of te reo Māori in a broadcast – five times as many as the same period a year prior.

The most recent complaint, “KS and Television New Zealand Ltd”, was submitted as a breach of the standards of “fairness” and “discrimination and denigration”.

The complainant claimed: “The practice [of using te reo] is discriminatory toward non-Māori speaking New Zealanders and divisive. Those that don’t understand the language, the vast majority of the population, are being purposefully excluded and the practice is disrespectful and shameful. I find it offensive because of the inequality they practice. I can understand they are looking to include Māori and that’s a good thing but that should not be not at the exclusion of the rest.”

In response, the BSA members declined to “determine a complaint”.

Read the full piece here

11.35am: Number of filled jobs fell due to impact of Covid – Stats NZ

New stats show filled jobs in the December 2020 quarter dropped by almost 1% – or 19,000 jobs – compared to the same time in 2019.

The national fall is the first year-on-year fall since the PAYE- tax-based series began in June 2011, Stats NZ said, and followed slowing growth in filled jobs in both the September and June 2020 quarters.

Areas with a high number of jobs in the tourism sector suffered the worst, with areas of the South Island and Auckland having large falls. In particular, the Queenstown-Lakes district was down 9.1% from December 2019.

“Employment in the Queenstown-Lakes district has been heavily affected by the drop of overseas visitors since Covid-19 border restrictions came into place,” said Stats NZ’s business insights manager Sue Chapman.

Other tourist areas such as the Kaikōura district fell by 5.5% and the Mackenzie district fell by 5.1%.

10.55am: Alleged ISIS terrorist will likely end up back in NZ

A woman accused of being an Islamic State terrorist will likely end up back in New Zealand, according to media reports.

As RNZ reported this morning, New Zealand officials have reportedly said they will “come and take” Sahayra Aden and her two children from a deportation centre in Turkey.

Aden moved to Australia when she was six and travelled to Syria from there in 2014, on an Australian passport, to join Islamic State. However, the Australian government cancelled her citizenship last year – a move slammed by Jacinda Ardern.

MFAT said that “nothing has been agreed or determined” yet but that as Aden is a New Zealand citizen, conversations are ongoing with Turkish authorities.


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9.50am: Experts brought in to advise on Covid-19 response

The government’s called in the big guns for a new advisory group to help oversee New Zealand’s response to Covid-19.

Led by Sir Brian Roche, the group includes ex-Air New Zealand head Rob Fyfe, Debbie Ryan, Phillip Hill and Dale Bramley. Fyfe had already helped the government with its response during the first lockdown, working as a business liaison.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said the new group will oversee “continual improvement” of the Covid-19 response.

“This new advisory group will formalise that ongoing approach to independent review and improvement. As well as continually monitoring the implementation of previous reviews, the group will be empowered to provide impartial advice on the performance and impact of the whole system and the strategic direction of the response,” he said.

“It will also provide assurances on the performance and settings of managed isolation and quarantine facilities, and on planning for an outbreak, and will review public communications and responses in the community.


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9.40am: New poll shows backing for law change on cannabis despite referendum result

A new poll – backed by advocates for cannabis legalisation – has revealed little support for the status quo on cannabis.

Last year’s referendum on the subject ended with no change to the current law; the results were 51% against the proposed legislation and 49% backing it.

The Helen Clark Foundation poll, conducted by UMR, has revealed 69% of people either supported the bill or would support decriminalisation of cannabis – a softer law change than what was proposed in the referendum.

  • Act party supporters: 51% supported legalisation or decriminalisation, 49% said the law should stay the same or be tougher.
  • National party supporters: 52% supported legalisation or decriminalisation, 47% said the law should stay the same or be tougher.
  • Labour party supporters: 81% supported legalisation or decriminalisation, 18% said the law should stay the same or be tougher.
  • Green party supporters: 93% supported legalisation or decriminalisation, 7% said the law should stay the same or be tougher.

Executive director of the Helen Clark Foundatio, Kathy Errington, said the results suggest New Zealanders don’t want us to fall behind the rest of the world on drug policies. “The adult use of cannabis is already legal for one-third of the population of the United States, and 36 states have medical markets in place,” she said.

“The broad mandate for change revealed by this poll suggests that the government has nothing to lose politically from lifting the burden of criminalisation – especially from the shoulders of young people and Māori, both of whom continue to make up a disproportionate amount of those being dragged through the courts on drug charges.”

9.20am: Police criticised for photographing innocent young people

An in-depth report on RNZ has revealed that police are approaching innocent young people in order to photograph them and collect personal information.

The information is then sent to a national police database, as reported by Te Aniwa Hurihanganui.

What’s both unsurprising and shocking is that all seven young people spoken to by RNZ for this story were Māori, with Waikato University criminologist Juan Tauri labelling it racial profiling.

“The significant concern here are the reasons police are giving for stopping young Māori. If there is no reasonable evidence to suggest someone has committed a crime, and they are only stopping young people because they match the rough description of ‘young and brown’, then that is racial profiling,” said Tauri.

Police refused to speak to RNZ for the story, which you can read in full here.

8.00am: ‘Year of the vaccine’ – herd immunity by end of 2021, says PM

2021 is the “year of the vaccine,” prime minister Jacinda Ardern has announced, revealing the plan is for New Zealanders to have “herd immunity” for Covid-19 within the year.

“Broadly speaking, it will take us through until the end of the year,” Ardern told RNZ – a radio network she will still be appearing on regularly.

Yesterday, it was confirmed the Pfizer vaccine will the primary Covid-19 jab. An additional 8.5 million doses will arrive in the second half of the year, creating enough for the entire country to get both doses required.

“Our plan is that when you have a highly effective vaccine… that means that what you’re doing is cutting off the virus’ opportunity to create a chain of transmission,” she said. By the time we’ve achieved herd immunity, the borders should be able to open again, she confirmed.

Pushed on the fact that not everyone will take the vaccine, Ardern said: “If we get to the point where we have a significant portion of the population who are vaccinated that means we provide immunity and protection for others.”

In other news, Ardern was questioned on her decision to pull out from her Newstalk ZB interview slot. The PM said it will give her an opportunity to reach other demographics through appearances on more youth-focused or culturally focused media. Throughout all this, of course, she will continue to appear regularly on RNZ, TVNZ and Newshub – just not Newstalk ZB.

7.30am: Top stories from The Bulletin

The government has bought enough Pfizer vaccines to cover the entire country, in a significant update to the vaccination programme. As our live updates reports, the load will arrive in the second half of the year, well after other countries have received their doses. Other purchase orders are in place, for brands that don’t have the same cold-storage logistical challenges as Pfizer. But overall, the one the government has gone for looks like the best on the market. “The decision to make Pfizer New Zealand’s primary vaccine provider was based on the fact the Pfizer vaccine has been shown to be about 95% effective at preventing symptomatic infection,” said PM Ardern. The full schedule of who gets it when will be laid out later this week.

So what will change with the vaccine? There are two pieces I think that are worth noting. The first is by Mirjam Guesgen on The Spinoff, and discusses why an air crew member still tested positive after getting the jab. They’d only had their first of two doses, which reduces efficacy, and vaccination in this case doesn’t completely block any and all chances of catching Covid-19 – rather it makes people asymptomatic, and reduces transmission.

And with that, we eventually end up with herd immunity. That’s a term that has been mangled by bad science over the last year, and taken to mean what happens when everyone has been infected (wrong and deadly!) but it is actually desirable and possible to achieve with vaccines. As Politik reports, when this happens the plan is to treat Covid-19 much more like the flu, with seasonal vaccinations to protect against emerging strains, but no lockdowns or travel bans to prevent it spreading.  Speaking on Morning Report just before, Ardern signalled the end of the year as when this would be achieved.


Another 75,000 tonnes of toxic waste around Tiwai Point has been revealed, and the company doesn’t know what it’s going to do with it yet, reports Phil Pennington for Radio NZ. Exporting the waste is becoming more difficult for Rio Tinto, who have responsibilities to remediate their mess, and efforts to process the waste onshore haven’t come to much. While the company says they are confident it is stored safely and securely, documents show there have been several scares when the storage building was compromised in some way.

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