Live updates, August 11: ‘This is not over’ – Hipkins warns of sudden level four shift if delta emerges

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for August 11, bringing you the latest news updated throughout the day. Get in touch at stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

3.25pm: Post-Covid roadmap to be unveiled tomorrow

Further details about New Zealand’s roadmap to reopening the border will be revealed tomorrow.

While the Skegg report – which provided advice for a phased reopening of the border – was released this morning, the government would not answer questions on its content at today’s Covid-19 press conference.

Jacinda Ardern, alongside health officials including Ashley Bloomfield, will tomorrow explain how the government intends to respond to the advice in the report and potentially reveal when we could see international travel start to resume.

I’m on leave for the rest of the week but The Spinoff’s deputy editor Alice Neville will be running the live updates tomorrow live from the forum in Wellington.

2.40pm: New South Wales outbreak grows, two more deaths recorded

New South Wales’ Covid-19 outbreak has grown by another 344 cases overnight. Of these, almost 230 have not yet been linked to an existing case or cluster.

Two more deaths have also been recorded, including a man in his 30s who had an underlying health condition.

Despite no signs of the spread slowing down, state premier Gladys Berejiklian implied that restrictions may ease this month as vaccination rates soar.

“With six million jabs by the end of August, if achieved, there will be opportunities for us in parts of the communities where cases are low and vaccination rates are high for them to do more than they do today,” she said.

Read more: What went wrong in New South Wales

Earlier this week, The Spinoff’s Justin Giovannetti took a closer look at the New South Wales outbreak as our own health officials continue to highlight the dangers of delta.

“This time last year they had the best contact tracing outfit in Australasia. And that actually worked, but they probably got a bit complacent and proud. It became politicised that the New South Wales approach meant you could do it without lockdown. It worked last year, but they failed to account for delta,” said Tony Blakely, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Melbourne.

1.00pm: ‘Further lockdowns possible’ – Hipkins’ message to NZers

Updated

New Zealanders should be prepared for a sudden shift to alert level four if the delta variant of Covid-19 makes its way into the community.

Another 46,000 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine were administered yesterday, pushing the total number up to almost 2.3 million. So far, around 850,000 people are fully vaccinated against the virus and DHBs continue to track around 2% ahead of schedule.

Speaking at parliament, Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said the government was doing everything it could to try and stop the delta variant entering the community. “My message to all New Zealanders is that this is not over… further lockdowns are possible,” he said. “Everybody should have a plan for what they would do in this circumstance.”

Officials were “adjusting our response” to the virus because of Covid variants emerging around the world, Hipkins said.

That could include a a short, sharp level four lockdown at either a regional or national level if the delta strain entered the community. Hipkins said the preference was for a “swift and severe” response.

The government will continue to act vigilantly, he said, and make sure our border remained strengthened. As of midnight on August 15, travel from Indonesia and Fiji will be restricted with the two nations being designated “very high risk”.

Expanded saliva testing has now rolled out across additional sites, including Auckland Airport, said Hipkins.

Meanwhile, there are no new community cases today with two reported overnight in managed isolation.

Bloomfield blocked from appearing at health select committee

The director general of health won’t face scrutiny over a memory lapse regarding the transfer of a Covid-positive UN worker from Fiji.

The National Party had hoped to question Ashley Bloomfield in the health select committee, but this request was blocked by government MPs. In a statement, Chris Bishop said it showed a lack of transparency.

“Auckland clinicians and other public health experts have raised concerns about the decision to accept the patient on ethical and safety grounds. Initially the transfer was declined, then suddenly 24-36 hours later it was accepted. Who made that decision, and why?”

12.55pm: Hipkins, Bloomfield to give weekly Covid update

Chris Hipkins and Ashley Bloomfield are about to speak after the announcement that travel from Fiji and Indonesia will be restricted due to growing Covid-19 case numbers. The pair will also face questions on the vaccine rollout.

12.30pm: Travel from Fiji and Indonesia to be restricted as Covid cases soar

Growing Covid-19 cases in Fiji and Indonesia has prompted the government to limit incoming travel to New Zealand.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins confirmed the two nations have been designated “very high risk” and, from midnight on August 15, travel to New Zealand will be restricted. Just New Zealand Citizens, their partners and children, and parents of dependent children who are New Zealand citizens will be allowed to travel here, pending the regular stint in MIQ.

“Currently there are more than 24,000 active cases of Covid-19 in Fiji, with the outbreak which began in April continuing to escalate,” said Hipkins. “Public health advice suggests steps must be taken now to minimise the risk of Covid-19 entering unimpeded through our border.”

Hipkins acknowledged this may disrupt New Zealanders’ travel plans but said it was “necessary” to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“These stronger measures for specific countries have been enacted to reduce the risk of possible transmission, which is particularly important as countries deal with the Delta variant of Covid-19.”

Hipkins will front today’s 1pm press conference alongside Ashley Bloomfield.

12.10pm: Theia on the soundtrack every young person needed in the 2000s

The musician and songwriter tells us about the first CD she bought, Neopets, songwriting in te reo Māori and more in this week’s episode of FIRST.

11.20am: Tauranga port workers all return negative Covid-19 tests after delta scare

No Covid-19 results have been reported in Tauranga as a second wave of negative test results were confirmed overnight.

A number of port workers were tested after being linked to a container ship – the Rio De Le Plata – with almost a dozen cases of the delta variant of Covid-19 onboard.

In a statement this morning, the Ministry of Health said all Port of Tauranga workers who were identified as having contact with the ship’s crew have returned initial negative results. “Additional test results required for some port workers have also come back negative, although six results are pending,” said a spokesperson.

A total of 72 port workers have been identified as contacts. Of these, 70 were identified as requiring a day three test after their potential exposure, with 64 of these so far negative and six pending. “In addition, two pilots who have also both tested negative, remain in isolation for 14 days since their possible exposure.”

Tauranga public health staff will be providing individual advice to the border workers on when they can return to work, with the majority cleared for work today.

Crew members onboard the ship remain asymptomatic and the vessel has now left New Zealand waters, the ministry confirmed.

Earlier this week it was revealed just how poor vaccine uptake has been among port workers. National’s Chris Bishop said it’s not good enough: “Here we are in mid-August and 36% of all frontline port workers have not had a single vaccination, with the numbers at 60% in the Bay of Plenty DHB and 80% in the East Coast.”

Health officials will be holding two information sessions with port workers tomorrow, the ministry confirmed, with clinicians available to answer questions.

10.50am: National MPs up in arms over removal of Winston Churchill portrait

National won’t demand a debate on whether or not a portrait of Winston Churchill should be hanging in parliament, instead criticising the Greens for choosing to have it removed.

Judith Collins tweeted a photo of the portrait being taken down, claiming the Greens “don’t like him” and said that the painting would find a new home in the National offices. Churchill was the “greatest anti-fascist leader” of the 20th century, said Collins.

Colleague Simeon Brown backed up Collins, accusing the Green Party of hating Churchill because he fought for things like democracy and freedom of speech. “Looking forward to welcoming Sir Winston Churchill to National’s offices,” wrote Brown, possibly unaware the wartime PM died in 1965.

National’s objection to the portrait being removed is reminiscent of a row over a bust of Churchill once displayed in the Oval Office.

9.30am: ‘Our supporters deserve better’ – Hurricanes player addresses racist comments by board member

Hurricanes player TJ Perenara is “seeking answers” after racist and “insulting” comments made by one of the team’s part owners.

Earlier this week, board member Troy Bowker accused Sir Ian Taylor of “sucking up to the left loving Māori agenda” in a post online.

On Twitter, Perenara has hit out at the “underlying racism” of Bowker’s comments and said he had started conversations with players and management.

“As with other franchises, Hurricanes players past and present have come from a range of different backgrounds. Our collective identities have long provided us with a source of strength and pride,” the player wrote.

“The mental, emotional, and cultural safety of our players is crucial and needs to be assured. Our supporters deserve better and should be able to back us without feeling conflicted.”

He added: “Right now I can’t see how these things can happen if the status quo is maintained, and am seeking answers as to what the next steps are. Tūngia te ururua kia tupu, whakaritorito te tupu o te harakeke. Mauri ora.”

This isn’t the first time Perenara has been a vocal critic of issues within rugby, previously condemning homophobic comments made by Israel Folau.

8.10am: Experts in support of Skegg report, but warn of reopening too soon

Reaction to the release of the Skegg report into how New Zealand’s borders could reopen has so far been largely positive.

The report – as explained in this morning’s Bulletin – has argued for a phased reopening of the border once vaccination rates are high enough.

“We need to do more to further strengthen our borders and bolster our health defences, including through the vaccine rollout, before we can safely open the border further, and that will take a little more time to properly prepare,” said associate health minister Ayesha Verrall. The government will officially respond to the report tomorrow, but experts from the science community have already had a chance to gather their thoughts.

Shaun Hendy – a Covid-19 modeller from the University of Auckland – said waiting for the vaccine rollout to conclude before shifting our border settings was “sound advice”.

“Once the vaccine rollout is complete the risks of a large-scale Covid-19 outbreak in New Zealand will diminish and should be able to be managed without the need for the stringent lockdowns that were needed last year,” he said, in comments published via the Science Media Centre.

“Until that point however, any relaxation of border controls would almost immediately require further lockdowns to manage the virus.”

Otago University’s Lesley Gray agreed and believed that the sluggish MIQ booking system needed an overhaul and rapid testing must be introduced. “The MIQ voucher system stands out as a major hurdle and inequitable barrier, presenting many challenges for people trying to get back to NZ,” Gray said.

Tourism expert Christian Schott from Victoria University said operators need to know what their future holds – but was pleased the report provided some clarity on the border’s reopening. “There are obviously no timelines but at least operators know that it will be staged, and based on a number of criteria that they can use in their planning. I think under the circumstances, it’s the best we can wish for.”

We’ll have live coverage from Wellington of tomorrow’s Reconnecting New Zealand forum where the government will outline its response to the report.

7.30am: Top stories from The Bulletin

A major new report came out this morning on how New Zealand’s borders might reopen, and whether the elimination strategy should continue. It came from a group chaired by Sir David Skegg, and included a range of economic and public health advisors. The report was commissioned by the government, and is intended to form the backdrop to discussions about the strategy from here. Here’s eight key points.

The report backed the use of elimination to date. Elimination had allowed much of cultural, economic and social life continue over the last eighteen months, in contrast to other countries that have bounced in and out.

It may not necessarily continue, though it is argued to be viable even with phased reopening of borders. To quote: “There are two reasons why it is timely to review the case for holding to an elimination strategy. One is the advent of safe vaccines that have been shown to have high efficacy (in clinical trials) and effectiveness (in national programmes). The other is that there are calls to start re-opening our borders to travellers other than citizens and residents, and to allow more quarantine-free entry.”

Continued elimination is encouraged to “keep our options open”. If Covid was allowed to take hold, the report authors see that as irreversible. They don’t see that as meaning no cases whatsoever – rather any clusters are quickly clamped down on. Even with vaccinations, the consequences of an outbreak like the one seen in New South Wales are regarded as severe. Something like that happening in New Zealand this year was considered possible.

The report recommended a new name for the strategy. Other countries have gone with “aggressive containment”. The report recommended a name for the strategy be taken from te reo Māori.

Vaccine data to date is showing promise. However, that is hindered by several factors. New Zealand’s rate of vaccination remains low, making an outbreak more dangerous. And new strains that test vaccine effectiveness are developing, particularly through natural selection of the virus in partially vaccinated populations.

International travel could resume, but only under bubble-like conditions. Those include being from approved countries, doing pre-departure tests, and tests on arrival. It’s not strongly different from the settings around Australia, though that bubble is burst for the foreseeable future. The report also sees “at least six months to prepare for  reducing border restrictions, because considerable preparatory work is required.” It also recommends, at some hypothetical stage in the future, an opening for fully vaccinated New Zealanders going overseas on short trips without quarantine, under conditions.

But when would any of this actually start? Largely that hasn’t been firmly stated in the report, with a note near the end that “it is unrealistic for some commentators to be demanding firm plans for re-opening, long in advance.” That comes in a section called “Considerations for 2022”, if that helps date it. If the report is followed, the current border conditions will persist for many months to come.

What is the government’s view? A reminder – this report is the view of the authors, not necessarily the government. Their response will be given at the Reconnecting New Zealand forum, to be held on Thursday. It is fair to say the report has taken a generally cautious line on those questions, which could have implications for the response.



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