Live updates, August 16: ‘Gravely concerned’ – plans to rescue 53 NZers stuck in Afghanistan

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for August 16, bringing you the latest news updated throughout the day. Get in touch at stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

3.45pm: Bowker comments not hate speech, ‘no recollection’ of donation – PM

Troy Bowker’s comments on Māori were “backward” but would not amount to hate speech under proposed legislation, Jacinda Ardern has told media.

Bowker quit the Hurricanes’ board over the weekend following widespread backlash to racist comments he made on social media, but remained unrepentant.

At today’s post-cabinet press conference, Ardern also confirmed she had “no recollection” of a $5000 donation from Bowker’s company Caniwi Capital made to her Mount Albert by-election campaign in 2017. At the time, Ardern was a list MP and had not yet become Labour leader.

Ardern said while she would have been aware of the donation at the time, nothing had raised “red flags” as she did not know of him or his views. She also assumed Bowker would now be “unhappy” about the result of the by-election that saw Ardern become the Mount Albert MP. Any donation from Bowker now would not be accepted, said Ardern, and she expected the same of her MPs.

3.10pm: ‘Gravely concerned’ – work under way to rescue 53 NZers stuck in Afghanistan

Updated

The government is “gravely concerned” by the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan that has seen the country’s president Ashraf Ghani flee.

Speaking at today’s post-cabinet press conference, Jacinda Ardern said officials were aware of 53 New Zealanders in Afghanistan “all who have been offered consular support”. New Zealand was looking to how it could provide humanitarian assistance more broadly, she said.

Cabinet had confirmed that it will continue to make “every effort” to repatriate the New Zealand citizens and permanent residents stuck in Afghanistan, added Ardern.

Furthermore, an “in principle” decision had been made to assist in evacuating Afghan nationals – if there was a serious risk to them or their families – who worked directly with the NZ Defence Force, police, or MFAT or provided material assistance to the Operation Burnham inquiry.

A decision had also been made to deploy the C130 Hercules aircraft to support the international efforts to evacuate foreign nationals and Afghan nationals. “Defence are in close contact with our partners in Australia to discuss operational decisions,” said Ardern, choosing not to disclose further details due to security reasons.

Asked why this decision only came today, after the Taliban had already taken control, Ardern said the international response showed this situation had unfolded “rapidly”.

Ardern said she had been in discussions “at the highest level” with Australia, but would not confirm she had communicated directly with Scott Morrison.

Logistical issues related to managed isolation space for potential returnees from Afghanistan were being considered, said Ardern. “This is not going to be a situation where in the next week individuals are evacuated and brought to New Zealand immediately… there will be an element of processing.” There should also be enough available space within the current contingency, she confirmed.

2.55pm: PM to speak on developing Afghanistan situation

Jacinda Ardern is about to front a post-cabinet press conference where she will provide an update on the unfolding situation in Afghanistan and New Zealand’s response.

It’s likely the PM will also provide more info on our vaccine rollout and, as always, will face questions from media.

A livestream of the presser is available here and we’ll have full coverage from 3pm.

2.50pm: Melbourne lockdown extended by two weeks

Melbourne’s lockdown has been extended by two weeks.

The new measures will come into place at 11.59pm tonight, according to Australian media, with a curfew between 9pm to 5am.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews called it a tipping point for the state. “The origins of some [cases] are unknown to us,” he said. “That means that this is spreading in an undetected way across the community.”

Earlier today, almost 500 new cases were recorded in New South Wales.

2.25pm: Ardern received donation from ex-Hurricanes board member Troy Bowker in 2017

It’s been revealed Jacinda Ardern received a donation from Troy Bowker – the Hurricanes board member who quit over the weekend after backlash to racist comments he made on social media.

Bowker said Sir Ian Taylor was “sucking up to the left Māori loving agenda”, prompting swift condemnation from the public, some politicians and Hurricanes star TJ Perenara. Bowker continued to defend his comments despite the pressure before quitting the board allegedly due to a restructure.

According to the Herald, Jacinda Ardern received the $5000 donation from Bowker’s company Caniwi Capital during the Mount Albert by-election in 2017, before she took up the Labour Party leadership.

The donation had not disclosed by the PM despite last week criticising Bowker’s comments as “appalling” and facing questions over donations given to another Labour MP by Bowker.

1.35pm: ‘Disturbingly high’ number of new Covid-19 cases in NSW

New South Wales’ Covid-19 outbreak has hit another unpleasant record, with 478 new cases of the coronavirus reported today.

There were also seven more deaths, according to Nine News, despite the latest lockdown measures aimed at curbing spread of the delta strain.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the case numbers were “disturbingly high” and gave a strict warning to locals from a number of suburbs. “Just stay home. Don’t leave your house. Don’t cut corners, unless you absolutely have to, we just want people to stay still,” Berejiklian said.

1.00pm: Russian traveller tests positive at day 12 in MIQ; vaccine drive tops 2.5 million doses

There were no new cases of Covid-19 to report in the community overnight, with five recorded in managed isolation.

One of those – a traveller from Russia via Singapore – tested positive on day 12 of their stay in MIQ. “This case is being investigated as a possible historical case,” said the Ministry of Health in a statement.

Two previously reported cases have recovered since yesterday’s update. The number of active cases in New Zealand is 44.

The latest vaccine data

The vaccine rollout has topped 2.5 million doses, with 918,000 people fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

As of midnight, more than 138,000 Māori have received their first vaccination and more than 93,000 doses have been administered to Pacific peoples.

Yesterday marked the most successful Sunday of the vaccine drive, with over 25,000 doses given out.

12.25pm: US to expand security presence in Kabul, evacuate ‘thousands’

The US has announced plans to take over air traffic control at Kabul airport in an effort to evacuate “thousands” of American citizens and employees of the US mission.

In a statement, the Pentagon and US State Department said security at the airport will also be expanded.

“Tomorrow and over the coming days, we will be transferring out of the country thousands of American citizens who have been resident in Afghanistan, as well as locally employed staff of the U.S. mission in Kabul and their families and other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals,” the statement read.

US media are continuing to provide live coverage of the situation in Afghanistan, including from CNN here.

12.00pm Extremely Online – WTF is cryptocurrency?

Seems like everybody’s talking about cryptocurrency these days. Confused as to how it all actually works? Let this week’s episode of Extremely Online, from the team at Shit You Should Care About, explain it in a way we can all understand.

11.15am: NZ First inches back towards 5% threshold in new poll

New Zealand First has seen a major bump in a new poll that would almost put them back in parliament.

As reported by the Herald’s Claire Trevett, the Winston Peters-led party has moved up to 4.4% – just 0.6% away from the crucial 5% threshold.

In line with recent polls, Labour has taken a significant hit and dropped five points down to 43%. That’s still well up on National who sit on 28% with Act bolstering the right bloc on 13%.

The rise in support for New Zealand First comes after Winston Peters made a surprise return to the political sphere over the weekend, sending out a press release criticising the government for a slow vaccine drive.

“New Zealand First is concerned at the inexcusably slow Covid vaccine rollout and predicting a chilling result for public health and a lockdown of our economy,” Peters said in the statement.

“New Zealand suffers from the worst vaccine rollout performance in the first world. Just as bad is the low vaccination rates for Māori and Pasifika despite Government saying these populations are the most vulnerable.”

9.40am: ‘Leopards don’t change their spots’ – Helen Clark ‘pessimistic’ after Taliban insurgence

Former prime minister Helen Clark, who held a senior role at the UN for eight years, has labelled the rise of the Taliban “surreal” and called it a “massive step backwards”.

Clark was PM when New Zealand first sent troops to Afghanistan.

Speaking to RNZ, Clark said: “The thought of negotiating a transition with the Taliban was naive and the failure of intelligence as to how strong the Taliban was on the ground… was equivalent to the failure of intelligence around the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.”

Asked about women in Afghanistan under a Taliban regime, Clark said she would not step foot outside the door. “Leopards don’t change their spots and whether this is really a new reformed Taliban… I very much doubt it. We just have to see how this play out but to say that I’m pessimistic would be an understatement.”

Listen to the full interview

8.05am: Plans to evacuate NZers in Afghanistan as Taliban sweeps back to power

There could be up to 30 New Zealanders evacuated from Afghanistan as the Taliban sweeps back to power following the American withdrawal, Jacinda Ardern has told RNZ.

Decisions on the fate of the roughly 40 Afghans who supported NZDF operations, along with their families, were also expected to be confirmed at cabinet today. “We are working at the highest level alongside our partners,” she said. “We will be moving quickly because the window of partners moving into the area will be short.”

The PM would not reveal if she had been in contact with her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, citing security issues.

However, Ardern acknowledged that getting people out of Afghanistan was becoming increasingly more difficult. Previously, she said, there had been commercial options available for people who could make it to a point of departure but that may no longer becoming an option.

Asked whether New Zealand soldiers would be helping with evacuations, Ardern said she could not rule it in our out just yet. “We’re focused on the security situation on the ground right now… that’s our immediate consideration then we’ll be looking over the horizon to the ‘what’s next’ for the international community.”

According to TVNZ, an official update from the government can be expected at 11am.

7.30am: The Bulletin – Skegg on life after the border reopens

A quick note from me first: A huge thanks to both Alice and Toby for filling in for me on the live updates before the weekend. The news was in very safe hands!

And a massive welcome to our new Bulletin editor Justin Giovannetti, who you will all know as The Spinoff’s political editor. His first edition landed promptly in inboxes this morning and it’s a cracker.

Here’s this morning’s top story:

Sir David Skegg has an optimistic view of what a more open New Zealand could look like in the age of Covid-19. Speaking with The Bulletin after the government laid out plans last week to begin cautiously reopening the country’s border, Skegg sketched out a vision of a country not too dissimilar from the one we live in now.

Contact tracing yes, masks no. Skegg has spent most of the past year thinking about the future. He chaired the group that provided the government with the scientific basis for its border reopening plan. While contact tracing and Covid-19 tests aren’t going anywhere, he doesn’t expect mask use to become commonplace in New Zealand, outside of public transit and higher alert levels. That’s at odds with some epidemiologists.

“Mask wearing is certainly something that’s important at raised alert levels, but I’m hoping that we won’t need to have mass masking all the time, the way many countries do and will continue to do,” he told Friday. “It’s a reduction in quality of life when you can’t see your friends and colleagues unless they are covered with a mask.”

He worries about the social impact of widespread mask use. Data from the UK, where the majority of people still wear masks outside of the home, shows significantly less social contact between people. “You wonder what this will do to society if this goes on for years,” Skegg adds. There’s a real cost of university students learning on their laptops and people only working from home, especially for the young at the start of their careers.

Domestic vaccine passports are unlikely. A requirement for vaccine passports is planned in some of Europe and North America to enter restaurants and bars. Unless the border fails and the virus becomes endemic here, Skegg doesn’t expect we will see much interest from New Zealand businesses.

The conversation around Covid-19 is overwhelmingly negative. We talk about restrictions and lockdowns, of a Fortress New Zealand cut off from the world. With the delta variant, we worry about breakthrough infections for the fully vaccinated. It’s unrelenting and grim. Skegg’s vision offers a glimmer of hope: A border that can be crossed and a life in Aotearoa that’s almost uniquely pre-pandemic.

“We have a lifestyle which has become very rare on the planet. We may fail, but my colleagues and I think it’s worth a try. We need to reopen to the world and maintain the quality of life we’ve had over the last 18 months,” he says.

Much of this relies on a vaccination strategy that is wildly successful.Neither the government nor Skegg has put a number on how many people need to get the jab before New Zealand can return to something close to a pre-pandemic state. To maintain an extroverted, mask-free life in a country with visitors coming in, it’s likely New Zealand will need one of the most successful campaigns in the world. It’ll need to be near 100%.

One thing that won’t change after a double jab: You’ll still need to get tested. It will come as a surprise to most people, but Skegg says they’ll still need to get nasal swabs for years to come when they develop a cold or flu-like symptoms, even if fully vaccinated. The jabs help reduce symptoms of infection, but you can still get sick with them and the evidence increasingly indicates that the vaccinated can spread the delta variant.

“People really need to go get tested if they get cold or flu symptoms. It’s so vital that we detect any virus incursions as soon as possible. Whenever I talk to friends and people I meet, I’m amazed by how many think we won’t have similar problems as Australia. They think we are somehow immune. That complacency is our biggest risk,” he says.

Elimination doesn’t mean no Covid-19. There’s no contradiction in both being committed to an elimination strategy and planning to allow for the virus to enter the country more often. People should expect pockets of community transmission next year. Probably not weekly, according to Skegg, but they’ll happen. As long as they can eventually be contained and stamped out, that’s not a failure.

Our understanding of how Covid impacts children is likely to change soon. The original strain of the virus seemed to largely avoid children and young adults, something that has changed with delta. People in their 20s and 30s have died in the New South Wales outbreak. Paediatric hospitals are being overwhelmed in parts of the US. The delta variant is a different virus and likely will increase calls to vaccinate the young.

“There’s a suspicion that the delta variant is more inclined to infect younger people, but not more than it infects older people,” Skegg says. “However, the issue of how important children are at driving the epidemic is still very controversial.”

Read more and subscribe to The Bulletin here



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.