Live updates, May 10: 500 spaces in MIQ to open for workers, students, refugees

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for May 10, bringing you the latest news updated throughout the day. Get in touch at stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

4.00pm: 500 spaces in MIQ to open for workers, students, refugees

Political editor Justin Giovannetti reports from parliament

About 500 spots will be opened up every fortnight in New Zealand’s managed isolation system for skilled workers, university students and refugees, the prime minister announced after a cabinet meeting today.

Businesses have become increasingly vocal that the government should allow more workers through the border at a time when thousands of rooms have remained empty in managed isolation. The opening of the trans-Tasman bubble and new restrictions on returnees from high-risk countries has led to a rapid drop in MIQ arrivals.

Half of the nearly 4,000 spots in border facilities are currently empty. Projections show thousands of empty rooms for weeks to come.

Some of those spaces are empty by design, including 500 rooms being kept permanently available in case of a collapsed trans-Tasman bubble.

Many of the spaces announced by the prime minister today had already been allocated during announcements in recent months, including rooms for 2,400 seasonal workers, 240 construction workers, 400 international students and 100 refugees every six weeks.

The Labour government promised during last year’s election to open 10% of spaces for workers. Today’s announcement largely fulfils that promise.

The spaces will be allocated over 10 months, until the end of next March. That’s another sign that the country’s border restrictions will continue into mid-2022 at the earliest.

3.45pm: Seven weeks of Covid transmission suspected before February outbreak

There has been a possible new breakthrough in the search for the origin of the Valentine’s Day Covid-19 cluster.

Newsroom is reporting the virus could have been in the community for seven weeks before being picked up in mid-February, sparking the first of two citywide lockdowns.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins, in response to a question from National’s Chris Bishop, said the “leading hypothesis is that this cluster is the result of a border incursion from this [December MIQ] case”.

That’s a distinct change from the message of health officials earlier this year, who said spread from MIQ was “unlikely”.

Initially, it was believed an employee who did laundry on international flights may have been the index case for the February outbreak. However, according to Hipkins, it’s now understood the employee’s daughter had actually contracted the virus earlier – backing up the theory Covid may have been in the community for longer than expected.

2.50pm: Act scoops government on plan to free up MIQ spots

The Act Party appears to have jumped the gun on a government announcement regarding managed isolation spaces.

In a press release sent out around 2pm, David Seymour welcomed a decision to free up 500 MIQ spots for overseas workers. The trouble is, no announcement has yet been made.

Jacinda Ardern will be fronting her regular 4pm post-cabinet press conference today where any official announcement on changes to managed isolation will be made.

The prime minister’s office declined to comment on Act’s pre-emptive press release when approached by Newshub.

Despite welcoming the announcement, Seymour added: “The government will give itself a big pat on the back today when it should be reflecting on how much misery it’s caused businesses when it should have been working proactively to have a plan in place.”

2.30pm: Australia to stay shut until 2022 – PM Morrison

Scott Morrison has indicated Australia may stay shut off from the rest of the world – except New Zealand – until at least 2022.

As with most of the world, the country closed off its borders in March last year amid growing numbers of Covid-19 cases. And according to the ABC, the upcoming federal budget assumes Australia will stay shut until next year.

Morrison said that Australia did not have the “appetite” for opening borders just yet. “We have to be careful not to exchange that way of life for what everyone else has,” he said.

“Australians are living like in few countries around the world today,” Morrison said, suggesting the border should remain watertight until it is “safe” to reopen.

The Fold on the future of TVNZ OnDemand

TVNZ is planning a major reimagining of its TVNZ OnDemand platform that will ultimately lead it into a post-linear TV future, CEO Kevin Kenrick has revealed in a wide-ranging interview on this week’s episode of The Fold. This includes multiple online-only channels, a major expansion of its digital news offering – and the bombshell confirmation of an ad-free paid subscription service.

Click here to read Duncan Greive’s full report, and subscribe to The Fold on Apple PodcastsSpotify or your favourite podcast provider.

1.00pm: No new Covid-19 cases; risk to public after Sydney outbreak still ‘low’

The risk to the New Zealand public remains low after two community cases in Sydney last week caused a temporary halt to quarantine-free travel.

The travel pause with New South Wales lifted at midnight last night, following a public health risk assessment.

Travellers who have arrived in New Zealand and have been at a Sydney location of interest during the exposure time are once again being asked to immediately self-isolate, and call Healthline on 0800 358 5453.

Meanwhile, there no new community or managed isolation cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand. There are two new historical cases, as well as a previously reported new case which has now been deemed historical and is not considered infectious.

The case was from Nepal, was reported on May 6 and has already been counted as part of our national tally.

The total number of active cases in New Zealand today has dropped down to 27.

12.20pm: Government asked to review ‘very high risk country’ travel ban

The government is being asked to regularly review its travel restrictions for permanent residents, as Covid-19 case numbers continue to skyrocket overseas.

After lifting the India travel ban, the government introduced a category of “very high risk” countries and prevented permanent residents living in those countries returning to New Zealand. So far, that category includes India, Papua New Guinea, Brazil and Pakistan.

In a statement, the Human Rights Commission said there is an obligation to provide ongoing justification for why permanent residents can’t travel to New Zealand.

“It may be lawful that such measures can be taken to restrict permanent residents’ ability to travel home if it is proportionate to the public health risk, however, we call for ongoing transparency around the justification for this change and the numbers of people who continue to be affected,” human rights commissioner Paul Hunt said.

“While acknowledging the importance of keeping New Zealand borders safe and protecting front line staff, the government also has international law obligations to permanent residents for whom New Zealand is their home.” 

Seeking aspiring journalists for a six-month paid internship at The Spinoff

The Spinoff is on the hunt for an aspiring writer, without newsroom experience, who would like to join The Spinoff’s Auckland-based team.

The successful candidate will spend six months based at our office, gaining experience across reporting, feature writing, editing, video production, podcasting and more, and will be paid the living wage. The starting date is flexible, allowing candidates of the 2021 graduating classes to apply.

Keen to find out more? All the details are here.

9.40am: ‘Balance’ finance minister’s favourite word at pre-budget speech

Business editor Michael Andrew reports from the finance minister’s pre-budget address

Balance was the word of the day during Grant Robertson’s pre-budget speech in Auckland this morning, in which the finance minister acknowledged the government’s approach meant its manifesto commitments were unlikely to be achieved this year.

With Covid-19 still being felt across the world, Robertson stressed the upcoming budget would be influenced by the lingering impact of the pandemic, while factoring in a carefully managed recovery.

“Though our wellbeing approach continues to shape our approach, budget 2021 is quite clearly going to be defined by the ongoing challenges that New Zealand and the global economy is still grappling with as a result of Covid-19 and our recovery from it,” he said.

“Our three core goals for this term of government are continuing to keep New Zealanders safe from Covid-19, accelerating our recovery and taking on the foundational challenges in our economy and society, in particular housing affordability, climate change and child wellbeing.”

Robertson said this year’s budget approach would be built on two principles: Any increased spending would be directed toward where the need was greatest, and fiscal support would be used to secure the type of economic recovery New Zealand wanted.

“We don’t want the economic recovery simply to restore aspects of an economy that are unproductive, unsustainable and unfair. This means on-going investment in infrastructure, skills, research and innovation, expanding export markets and building sustainable industries that will grow high paying jobs.”

In response to the onslaught of criticism and dismay over the government’s announcement regarding the public sector last week, Robertson stressed that it wasn’t a “freeze” of public sector salaries as was reported, but rather an adjustment for those on incomes between $60,000 and $100,000 and a “hold” for those above $100,000.

When asked why the government would hold pay, and focus on debt reduction, while claiming to be committed to reducing inequality and increasing standards of living, Robertson replied New Zealand “had taken on a large amount of debt through Covid” and a balance needed to be struck.

He said that public sector salaries could still increase, subject to individual negotiations within the organisations.

When asked if the government had mismanaged its communications of the fair pay agreement, causing undue stress and anger among public sector workers, Robertson replied that he didn’t know and the government would be taking time to reflect on it.

8.15am: Robertson teases ‘careful’, ‘balanced’ budget

Once again, wellbeing is a focus of this year’s budget. Finance minister Grant Robertson is addressing a business audience in Auckland this morning, less than two weeks out from budget day 2021.

“We can’t take the recovery for granted. Further waves of Covid-19 around the world underline that we are still in a highly volatile and uncertain global environment,” Robertson told the audience.

In the post-Covid environment, the budget will be both “balanced” and “careful”, said Robertson. However, the finance minister also teased there will be some spending on the way. Stimulus will be provided to accelerate the recovery, he said, with investments made where they are needed the most to tackle our long term challenges in priority areas such as climate change, child wellbeing and housing.

“Our better than expected economic recovery does provide us with more options. There is a bit more space in our operating and capital allowances to support the economy in line with our wellbeing approach while also providing further scope to keep a lid on our higher debt levels and then lower it once the recovery is secure,” Robertson said.

We’ll have a full report on Robertson’s speech from our business editor Michael Andrew later this morning

8.00am: No plans to extend cannabis amnesty for all chronically sick people

The government has no plans to extend an amnesty allowing all people with chronic illness to lawfully use cannabis.

It means that many people who find the drug an effective treatment will continue to be forced to break the law to access it.

As RNZ reports, MPs passed legislation in 2018 creating a temporary criminal defence so people with certain terminal illnesses could use cannabis while the wider medical regime was being set up. Now, an internal document leaked to RNZ shows the government has already ruled out expanding that protection to cover people with less serious conditions, despite a decision not due until December.

“The review will not consider widening the exemption to medical uses other than [for people in palliative care] or to other drugs controlled by the Act,” said the document.

In dismissing calls for the amnesty to be widened, health minister Andrew Little made a connection with last year’s cannabis referendum.

“[The current regime] has already been the subject of a referendum … and the signal from the electorate was they’re not ready for that level of liberalisation,” he said. 

“We are looking at ways to make sure the regime we’ve got doesn’t criminalise unduly and that is a work in progress.”

Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick disagreed. “That review can be as wide in scope as the minister wants it to be,” she said. “I don’t see a practical approach and I also don’t see any form of kindness.”

We’ll start today’s Bulletin with some fascinating world news, because it could lead to a very significant geopolitical development. Amid local elections in England, Scotland and Wales, the Scottish public has elected a parliament that is in favour of a second referendum on independence. That includes a seat share for the strongly pro-independence Scottish National Party that is just one short of an outright majority – for context, Scotland uses a slightly different version of MMP to New Zealand, so overall majorities are rare. The SNP is expected to be supported by the Scottish Greens, who are also pro-independence, and between them have a clear majority in the (Scottish parliament) Holyrood.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has asserted that she now has a mandate to press ahead with a second referendum, at least after Covid has been quashed. Reuters reports her comments came before the final results were in, but the likely outcome was clear. An analysis from pro-independence paper The Scotsman argues that voters knew exactly what they were choosing, and so there’s now a mandate to at least hold the vote. What’s less clear is whether the public will back it. Scots voted heavily against Brexit in 2016, and had that outcome forced on them. But there isn’t exactly an overwhelming popular consensus for independence from the UK – opinion polling bounces around a bit, but only ever with a narrow lead for either side. Some even within the SNP argue that polling needs to show a clearer independence majority before a referendum can be held – after all, nobody wants a repeat of the 52-48 Brexit vote that left those on the loosing side feeling robbed by the slimmest of margins.

For his part, UK PM Boris Johnson has dismissed the possibility of a referendum.He may not be able to stop it, but his position reflects wider sentiment in Westminster, the seat of the UK parliament. The BBC reports he’s made initial moves to bring together the leaders of the various national parliaments, to talk Covid and implicitly demonstrate that “Team UK” is worth sticking with.

But more generally, there could be a shift in the country from Great Britain to Little England. As Guardian columnist George Monbiot points out, the UK is in danger of breaking apart along several fault-lines. Welsh independence is still a long way away, but nationalist party Plaid Cymru slightly increased their seat share in the Welsh parliament. And post-Brexit, the idea of Irish re-unification is on the march once more, amid the difficulties and complications of the border that cuts across Ireland.

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering how the rest of the elections went, the main story is that UK Labour is in deep trouble. Despite being in opposition, the party lost huge numbers of councillors, along with a once-safe working class seat in a byelection, and responded by reigniting the civil war inside the party. For Johnson, the election has been interpreted as something of a referendum on his leadership during Covid – for example, this from CNN – and English voters have largely continued to back him.




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