PoliticsAugust 12, 2021

Live updates, August 12: Snap lockdown for ACT; QR code scanning drops to record low


Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for August 12, bringing you the latest news updated throughout the day.  Get in touch at

3.15pm: ACT to enter snap seven-day lockdown; 347 new cases in NSW

Australia’s ACT is going into a seven-day lockdown from 5pm local time today, following a case of Covid-19 being detected in the community.

A man in his 20s had tested positive to the virus and had been infectious in the community, according to ACT authorities. The source of infection was unknown, and there were multiple exposure sites.

The government said the new case represented the “most serious public health risk” the ACT, an enclave enclosed by New South Wales that’s home to Canberra, Australia’s capital, had faced for 12 months. It had previously been 105 days since the last case in the ACT – a diplomat in quarantine – and over a year since the last locally acquired case, reported the ABC.

It will be the first time the ACT has entered a lockdown of this nature since the early days of the pandemic.

NSW records 347 new cases; 21 new cases in Victoria; 10 new cases in Queensland

Meanwhile, the outbreak continues to worsen in New South Wales, which today recorded 347 new cases and two deaths, both men in their 90s.

Victoria has recorded 21 new cases, with Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton saying it appeared increasingly likely that the current outbreak, which began with two mystery cases, was linked to a fresh “incursion” from New South Wales.

Queensland has recorded 10 new locally acquired Covid-19 cases, all linked to the delta cluster that started in a high school in Brisbane’s west.

3.00pm: The big plan for ‘reconnecting New Zealanders with the world’: what you need to know

Want to get your head around the big news? Justin Giovannetti has been absorbing all the details of this morning’s announcement to bring you this explainer. Here’s an excerpt:

“New Zealand is going to be entering one of the riskiest phases of the pandemic in the next few months. There’s a pretty serious mismatch at the moment with what could be charitably described as complacency throughout the country. Mask use on public transit is plunging, even among bus drivers, and QR code scanning is at its lowest level in 2021. In many parts of New Zealand, it’s easy to forget Covid-19 exists.”

Read the full piece here

2.35pm: Lowest weekday QR scanning total since January 5

Meanwhile, as the government’s major new plan for the border is announced, since yesterday there have been no new cases of Covid-19 in the community and eight in MIQ, plus one new historical case, the Ministry of Health has announced.

Four of the new cases in MIQ arrived from Malaysia via Singapore on August 5 and tested positive at day five via being contacts of multiple cases. The remainder arrived on August 9 and tested positive at day one – one from India via Qatar, two direct from Japan and one from the UK via Singapore.

Two previously reported cases have now recovered, bringing the number of active cases in New Zealand to 43. Since 1 January 2021, there have been 117 historical cases, out of a total of 739 cases. The seven-day rolling average of new cases detected at the border is five, and our total number of confirmed cases is 2,557.

Meanwhile, all workers at the Port of Tauranga who were associated in some way with the Rio De La Plata container ship have now returned at least one negative test, said the ministry.

Today’s Covid Tracer app data paints a worrying picture on the day New Zealand announced its plan to open up to the world: there were just 455,048 scans in the past 24 hours to midday yesterday.

2.25pm: Business groups welcome border reopening plan

The response from business groups to the government’s plan for reopening the border has been largely positive. The Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) says the plan needs to be “turbocharged”, however, and pressing issues with the current system remain.
In a statement, EMA chief executive Brett O’Riley said he was looking forward to working with the government on the self-isolation pilot this year, but while it would potentially ease some of the issues with MIQ, “the booking system and capacity issues still need to be urgently addressed”.

“Lack of access to MIQ spots is hamstringing a number of businesses who need to either bring in critical staff or get their teams overseas and back,” said O’Riley.

BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope also welcomed the plan, saying the group had been “consistently calling for” a risk-based approach to the border. “Business travel has been taken into account with the provision for low-risk pathways, with quarantine-free entry for vaccinated travellers who have visited low-risk countries,” said Kirk. “Provision for medium-risk and high-risk pathways will also give more certainty around the process for travel generally.

“It was good to see the prime minister acknowledging working with employers on alternative isolation methods given the high pressure on the border, with the likely establishment of a self-quarantine pilot this year.”

Hospitality NZ, meanwhile, would have preferred the border opening to start sooner. “The border is the lifeblood of our industry, and we need it opened as soon as possible, though we know this needs to be done carefully and based on the science and what is happening in other countries,” said chief executive Julie White in a statement. 

“Hospitality New Zealand also welcomes the government’s desire to reduce the chances of further lockdowns by strengthening the health response, including by accelerating the vaccine rollout,” said White. “That and caution at the border will be crucial going forward. Going in and out of lockdowns hits hospitality extremely hard, so the sooner everyone is vaccinated, the better for us all.”

1.40pm: Essential workers should be urgently prioritised for vaccine – Wilson

Public health professor Nick Wilson of the University of Otago has called for the “urgent prioritisation” of essential workers in groups three and four, such as bus drivers, truck drivers and supermarket workers, for vaccination.

While there were many “excellent ideas” in the government’s plans announced today, there remained some “unfortunate gaps”, said Wilson via the Science Media Centre.

“The lack of vaccination of such workers has been one of the reasons that Sydney is currently struggling with its Covid-19 outbreak,” said Wilson.

Both Wilson and mathematical modeller Michael Plank of Te Pūnaha Matatini raised the issue of the vaccination of under-16s, with Wilson saying, “NZ should also be moving much faster on vaccinating 12-15 year olds as this can be done very efficiently in the school setting.”

Plank said that while vaccinating children was a “complex question”, if borders were relaxed before this happened, “we will almost certainly see outbreaks spreading through schools”.

1.00pm: Government’s border plan ‘good in principle’, but ambitious vaccination target needed – National

The opposition has welcomed the government’s plan for reopening the border, but says more detail is needed – and success will hinge on the vaccine rollout being sped up effectively.

“We continue to call for a formal ambitious vaccination target or range of targets,” said National leader Judith Collins in a statement. “A target would encourage uptake by mobilising the team of five million to come together behind a common goal. It would focus the system on achieving that target and hold the government to account for reaching it, or not reaching it.

“It’s not good enough for the prime minister to settle with only offering a vaccine to everyone by the end of the year. We need an ambitious target based on sophisticated modelling linked to border outcomes. The government doesn’t seem to have done this work.”

National’s Covid-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop called for more detail to be provided on what “low”, “medium” and “high risk” means in practice, and “we need to know more about the pilot of home-based isolation”.

National is also calling for the vaccine to be rolled out to those aged 12 and above, and for vaccination to happen at schools. At today’s forum, the prime minister and Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said while schools would play a role in the rollout, a family-based approach would be more successful.

11.30am: What countries will be low- or mid-risk?

In response to a question from The Spinoff’s Justin Giovannetti about the likelihood of countries where Covid-19 is rampant being deemed low- or mid-risk in the next six to 12 months, epidemiologist David Skegg, author of the report on reopening New Zealand that the government based today’s new plan on, said it wasn’t out of the question – as long as those countries have very high vaccination coverage.

He said the Ministry of Health was working on a system for determining a country’s risk level. It would need to be dynamic to take into account the rapidly changing nature of the pandemic, but that would need to be balanced with people’s need to have “some idea of what’s happening in the next few months” so they could plan travel. “It’s going to be challenging.”

Skegg also said he would like to see access to MIQ spots become more equitable, and public health units get greater funding to roll out more comprehensive contact-tracing methods.

11.20am: John Banks’ racist outburst ‘practically inevitable’, MediaWorks must pay $3,000 – regulator

The Broadcasting Standards Authority has found that John Banks’ “denigrating comments about Māori culture” on the Magic Talk radio station breached broadcasting standards. The regulator ordered that MediaWorks broadcast a statement on Peter Williams’ talkback programme, on which Banks was filling in, summarising the BSA’s decision, as well as pay $3,000 in costs to the Crown.

In the exchange, Banks, a former MP and mayor of Auckland, endorsed the views of a caller who described Māori as a “stone age people with a stone age culture”.

In a statement, the BSA said it had “determined that the broadcast breached the good taste and decency and discrimination and denigration standards. It upheld a complaint that action taken by MediaWorks, including apologising, standing down Mr Banks and making operational changes, did not sufficiently remedy the harm caused by the breaches.

It further noted: “The Authority found the comments were foreseeable in the broadcast environment MediaWorks had created.”

“The breach in this case was not a simple slip-up where MediaWorks personnel failed to identify and respond to an isolated discriminatory comment before it could be broadcast. The way the talkback topic was framed by Mr Banks as part of his introduction created an environment in which such discriminatory comments were foreseeable and practically inevitable,” the BSA said in the decision. The acknowledged lack of editorial boundary-setting and the systems within the production of the programme increased the severity of the breach to a level which was not sufficiently addressed by the broadcaster.”

The decision noted that the public platform broadcasters occupy “places them in a unique position to influence public views, effectively ‘normalising’ certain behaviours”.

It caps a humbling week for MediaWorks, following the release of a report revealing a “boys’ club” culture, numerous accounts of harassments, bullying and prejudice, as well as six allegations of sexual assault.

11am: MIQ booking challenges likely to remain; accepted vaccines yet to be decided

Asked whether today’s announcements would provide hope for New Zealanders who can’t secure spaces in MIQ due to the overloaded booking system, Ardern said “a bit of capacity” was being opened up in MIQ, “but it won’t be huge”. She hoped that by the first quarter of 2022, however, fully vaccinated New Zealanders travelling from medium-risk countries would be able to isolate at home as per the “medium-risk pathway” laid out below.

No decisions have been made as to which vaccines will be accepted under New Zealand’s border reopening plan, Ardern said, but as a baseline, Pfizer-vaccinated people were likely to be treated the same as New Zealanders vaccinated with Pfizer.

10.15am: All New Zealanders can book Covid-19 vaccinations from September 1

The government has announced a rapid escalation of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, with all New Zealanders able to book in their first jab from September 1. The move, announced at this morning’s “Reconnecting New Zealanders to the world” forum in Wellington, goes beyond what was recommended in a report by Sir David Skegg’s expert advisory group released yesterday.

As was announced earlier in the week, people aged 50+ can book their vaccinations from tomorrow. Ardern announced today that those 40+ will be able to book in their jabs from next Wednesday, August 18, and those 30+ from the following week, Wednesday, August 25. Those aged 16-29 can book from September 1.

“All going to plan that should mean our entire population has had the opportunity to book a vaccination by September and their second one by December,” said Ardern.

Bigger gap between vaccine doses 

The time between the first and second doses of the Pfizer vaccine is being lengthened from 21 days to six weeks, Jacinda Ardern announced this morning. The decision to widen the gap was based on three things, she said: the vaccine programme has already been rolled out to those most at risk, where more urgency was required; research suggests a marginally greater immune response with a slightly longer delay between doses; and one shot of Pfizer has been shown to reduce hospitalisation by 71%, so should we have an outbreak, as a population we’re safer with a larger amount of people at least partially vaccinated than if there are whole groups unvaccinated.

The booking system will now default to a six-week gap between doses rather than 21 days. Those who already have a second dose booked in shouldn’t make a change, however.

‘Tightly controlled’ self-isolation pilot to run from October-December this year

A “tightly controlled self-isolation pilot” for vaccinated New Zealanders will get under way in October, meaning New Zealand citizens and permanent residents who have been fully vaccinated in New Zealand and make a short trip away to one of an approved list of countries will be able to isolate at home, rather than go into an MIQ facility. They will not be allowed to isolate with family members, said Ardern.

It will take a limited number of participants – in the hundreds rather than the thousands, said Ardern – and will run to December.

“The pilot will enable us to test the logistics of entry into New Zealand under a self-quarantine model, the ability to monitor or enforce compliance, and the management of Covid cases if they arise,” said Ardern. Those participating will have to supply a self-quarantine plan as part of their application that meets the Ministry of Health’s requirements. Specific details will be confirmed in September, but the government intends to work with employers who need employees to travel. “The reason for this is the extra assurance that having an employer involved with a bit of ‘skin in the game’ will provide,” said Ardern.

Starting in 2022, “low-risk, medium-risk and high-risk travel pathways will be created, and which pathway a traveller takes will be based on the risk associated with where they are coming from and their vaccination status”.

The low-risk pathway means quarantine-free entry for vaccinated travellers who have been in low-risk countries; medium risk will be a combination of self-isolation and/or reduced MIQ from vaccinated travellers who have been in medium-risk countries; and high risk will mean 14 days in MIQ and testing.

The rest of 2021 will see new systems developed to prepare for the individual risk-based approach. “This work includes ongoing work on the development of a traveller health declaration system, investigating new testing technology for rapid testing on arrival at airports and reliable pre-departure testing,” said Ardern, in addition to the self-isolation pilot and strengthened contact tracing and other public health measures.

Ardern set out New Zealand’s various successes in containing the pandemic, but added that the response has not been without cost. “I believe this year has felt so hard,” she said. “In 2020 we knew what we had to do. In 2021, we want to know that things will get back to normal – eventually.”

Principle number one in the plan for the future was maintaining our elimination strategy, said Ardern. “That is not to say that the settings we have today will be the settings we have forever,” she added. “Nobody wants that.”

10am: ‘Watch this space’, says Bloomfield on kids’ vaccination

Asked if the vaccination programme would be rolled out this year to 12-15-year-olds, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said “watch this space”. He said the government was keeping an eye on the research in this area, covering children as young as six months, and it was clear those under 16 were a large and vulnerable part of the population.

The discussion panel at the Reconnecting New Zealanders to the world forum in Wellington on August 12

9.50am: Skegg: ‘I don’t see a way out’ for NSW

Speaking during a panel discussion at the government’s “Reconnecting New Zealanders to the world” forum this morning, David Skegg commented on the current situation in New South Wales. “It’s a very unfortunate situation and it’s spilling over the border into other states. Obviously it has implications for us − it’s a warning to us that it could happen anywhere,” he said.

He issued a reminder that the delta strain is already in New Zealand. “It’s already in a couple of hospitals, it’s in MIQ.”

The implications for quarantine-free travel with Australia were huge, he added, and if NSW was abandoning the elimination strategy, New Zealand may need to move towards treating Australia as a low-risk country, such as Singapore, rather than one that it could be fully open to.

9.30am: We’ll be vaccinating children in future − Baker

A panel discussion is under way at the government’s “Reopening New Zealand to the world” forum in Wellington. Asked for his predictions for the future, public health professor Michael Baker said that it was becoming clear that Covid-19 was a dangerous disease in children as well as adults. For that reason, he believed children would need to be vaccinated.

He hoped, however, that highly effective antivirals will be developed that lessen the effects of the disease.

9.20am: Contact tracing must be expanded, says Skegg

Following introductions by chief science adviser Juliet Gerrard and associate health minister Ayesha Verrall, David Skegg is now summarising the findings of his report. 

The elimination strategy is not only viable, but the best option, said Skegg. “If we have to give up on elimination, many New Zealanders will end up in hospital and a sizeable number will die.”

Contact tracing capacity of public health units should be expanded, and QR code scanning should be mandated at certain venues, said Skegg.

“I hope not to spend the rest of my life shielding from others, especially in winter, and looking at faces covered by masks. But we are going for gold and we may not succeed – especially if we don’t have high vaccination coverage.”

9.00am: Watch: Reconnecting New Zealanders to the world forum

8.30am: Mandatory mask use, QR code scanning expected as government responds to Skegg report

The government’s “Reconnecting New Zealanders to the World” forum is about to kick off in Wellington, with new rules for mandatory mask use and QR code scanning at higher alert levels expected to be among measures announced in response to Sir David Skegg’s expert advisory group’s report released yesterday.

Speaking on Morning Report this morning, prime minister Jacinda Ardern said such measures would prevent more severe restrictions being brought in for longer.

Writing on The Spinoff this morning, Siouxsie Wiles has laid out the critical factors the government will be considering as it responds to the report.

You can watch the forum livestreamed at this link from 9am, and we’ll be bringing you live updates from the National Library here.

7.30am: Top stories from The Bulletin

In what is a really massive story for the rural world, the Overseer software tool has been given a scathing review in a long-delayed report. If you don’t know what Overseer is, it’s basically the system on which farm environmental management is meant to run, telling farmers what the outputs (pollution) will be depending on what inputs (fertiliser) they put in. This means having it working properly is crucial to issues like freshwater quality and general environmental health. But as Radio NZ reporter Farah Hancock put it in a beautifully worded tweet, it is the “Novopay of Agriculture”, referencing the education system software that was similarly borked.

The review found “overarching structural problems”, reports Stuff’s Eloise Gibson and Jono Galuszka. There was no confidence it was measuring nitrogen loss properly, despite it being used by councils for this very purpose. Parliamentary commissioner for the environment Simon Upton said “it can no longer be a central pillar of freshwater quality management”. These are damning conclusions, but they’re not exactly new concerns – here’s a story from 2015 about farmers protesting at the Otago Regional Council how Overseer was used.

To reiterate, Overseer is used as a regulatory tool, and it is astonishing to think that the data provided by it isn’t reliable for that. Overseer is owned by fertiliser companies and had millions in taxpayer funding, and in response chief executive Caroline Read said it had been measured on things it was never designed to do, particularly with real-time information. This Farmers Weekly article goes into the more technical detail of what it does. Overseer remains confident their tool can provide useful long-term information.

The government has committed to improving the system, which has been welcomed by Local Government NZ. In a release, LGNZ regional sector chair Doug Leeder said “our close and continuing relationship with rural communities relies heavily on shared trust in the models we use for regulation”. Radio NZ reports ministers David Parker and Damien O’Connor say “the government will seek to ensure improved tools for estimating nutrient loss are transparent, accurate and effective”.

Covid minister Chris Hipkins has warned that a return to alert level four could be necessary if there’s a delta outbreak in NZ, our live updates reports. Hipkins warned people to be prepared for that move to take place very suddenly. The comments come ahead of a forum today on reopening the borders, which in the wake of yesterday’s Skegg report seems like a long way away. Writing on The Spinoff, Dr Siouxsie Wiles has looked at what needs to happen before opening up.

The blackouts on Monday night have sparked a flurry of interesting pieces about the electricity market. Radio NZ’s Jordan Bond has picked up on a point about Genesis not going ahead with building a massive new wind farm, despite getting resource consent for it almost a decade ago. Stuff’s Tom Pullar-Strecker reports emissions from the electricity sector rose over the last year, in a wider piece about New Zealand’s emissions profile. And writing for The Spinoff, Clint Smith has resurfaced an idea Labour and the Greens pushed in opposition called NZ Power (should’ve been KiwiVolt) to radically reform the generation/retail market. Meanwhile, the NZ Herald’s Thomas Coughlan reports the government has walked back some of their language around so-called “commercial decisions” made by Genesis.
The deputy mayor of Invercargill has called for a no-confidence vote in mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt, reports Logan Savory for Stuff. The tipping point for deputy Nobby Clark came at a council meeting earlier in the week, in which he said Sir Tim was not capable of handling. The story contains a video of said meeting, which Clark said speaks for itself. In response, the mayor said the move reflected the “determined workplace bullying” that he was facing.
There is increasing evidence that the overheated housing market is finally starting to cool a bit. Interest has covered the latest QV figures, which show house prices are still going up, but much slower than the extreme inflation seen over the past year. It is likely if interest rates go up later this month that trend will continue, though much will still depend on the basics of supply and demand.

There have been bits of news over the last week about the health and safety conditions in Talley’s factories being brought to light. Thomas Mead for 1News has now published the story behind the story, and the company’s attempts to prevent whistleblowers from coming forward. That included legal threats from the commercial giant, which the broadcaster admirably ignored, and published the story anyway.

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