blog feb 17

PoliticsFebruary 17, 2021

Live updates, February 17: Auckland to move to alert level two tonight, rest of NZ to level one

blog feb 17

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for February 17. Get me on stewart@thespinoff.co.nz. Auckland is currently at alert level three and the rest of the country, level two. 

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7.40pm: The day in sum

Cabinet decided to move Auckland down to alert level two from midnight, and the rest of the country to level one.

Another community case was announced, a household member of the two cases announced earlier in the day.

The Ministry of Health announced wastewater testing had found “no evidence of any community cases of Covid-19”.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins announced two new cases of Covid-19 in the community, linked to Papatoetoe High School.

Jacinda Ardern had a “constructive” discussion with Australian PM Scott Morrison following his government’s cancellation of the citizenship of a suspected Isis terrorist.

New Zealand ended its deployment in Afghanistan after 20 years.

7.00pm: Wiles, Baker respond to alert level decision

More experts have questioned the government’s decision to move Auckland down to alert level two. In a statement, Siouxsie Wiles of the University of Auckland said, “It’s no secret that I would have preferred for Auckland to stay at alert level three for a couple more days until all the test results had come back.

“But, the decision by the government to move Auckland to alert level two and the rest of the country back to alert level one suggests they are confident the outbreak is under control and any further transmission can be limited using the test-trace-isolate strategy.”

Public health professor Michael Baker, meanwhile, called for more halfway alert levels. “I would feel much more comfortable with this alert level change if we used this opportunity to introduce a more sophisticated approach to managing Covid-19 containment,” he said.

“We need additional alert levels (eg 2.5 and 1.5) to make mask use requirements clear, better describe limits on indoor gatherings, and manage movements outside of geographic areas where there is higher risk of Covid-19 transmission, notably Auckland at present.”

6.00pm: Otago experts question alert level change

The shift in alert levels is “not cautious enough”, according to public health professor Nick Wilson from the University of Otago, and moving Auckland to level 2.5 would have been a more prudent approach.

“We still don’t have any clear idea how the pandemic virus got through the border and many test results are outstanding,” he said in a statement, pointing at the number of cases that have come from preventable border failures – 11 since August.

Amanda Kvalsvig, an epidemiologist also from Otago, agreed. “We have a small group of cases that are strongly linked in terms of being known contacts. That’s very positive news. But it is a concern that although onward transmission is being effectively managed, the source is still unknown.

“Despite some reassuring results, stepping down alert levels does introduce risk because there’s less protection against unknown transmission from potential earlier missed cases,” she said.

5.50pm: Hospitality sector welcomes alert level changes, calls for more support

Hospitality businesses can open without restrictions in most of the country from tomorrow, and in Auckland, with the “seated, separated and single server” rules we’re familiar with from last year’s time in level two. That means not losing out on the crucial takings of Friday night and the weekend, and the Restaurant Association has welcomed cabinet’s decision.

“We’re pleased to see that the government is looking at ways to combine stopping the spread of the virus with the safe opening of businesses,” said Marisa Bidois, the association’s CEO, in a statement.

Bidois also called for financial support to be offered to affected businesses from the first day of any alert level change. Earlier this week, the government indicated support would only kick in if a lockdown lasted for longer than three days.

“The constant last minute closures and restrictions on trading are no longer workable for our industry – placing an untenable financial and emotional strain on owners,” she said. “Three days of restrictions generally means weeks of cancellations and subdued trading for our sector.”

“The growing disparity between the those that are able to operate their businesses profitably in the current climate, and those that cannot, can no longer be ignored.” Marisa Bidois, CEO Restaurant Association.

5.20pm: New locations of interest released

Locations of interest in connection to today’s new community cases of Covid-19 have been released. See the Ministry of Health website for more information on “casual” and “casual plus” contacts.

Subway Otara, 34 Fair Mall, Otara, Auckland

15 Feb, 12.30pm-1.30pm

Casual Plus. Please stay home, get a test on the 20th of February and call Healthline on 08003585453

JB Hi-Fi Manukau, 1 Leyton Way, Manukau, Auckland

14 Feb, 1.30pm-2.45pm

Casual Plus. Please stay home, get a test on the 19th of February and call Healthline on 08003585453

Skechers Manukau, 1 Leyton Way, Manukau, Auckland

14 Feb, 2.00pm-3.00pm

Casual Plus. Please stay home, get a test on the 19th of February and call Healthline on 08003585453

Westfield Manukau City Mall, 1 Leyton Way, Manukau, Auckland

14 Feb, 1.30pm-3.30pm

Casual. Monitor your health for the next 14 days. If you begin to feel unwell or develop any COVID-19 symptoms, contact Healthline on 0800 358 5453

McDonald’s Cavendish Drive, 199 Cavendish Drive, Papatoetoe, Auckland

13 Feb, 11.30am-4.15pm

Casual Plus. Please stay home, get a test on the 18th of February and call Healthline on 08003585453

4.30pm: Watch live – Auckland to drop to alert level two tonight, rest of NZ to level one

Auckland will drop down to alert level two at 11.59pm tonight as planned, the prime minister has announced, and the remainder of New Zealand will move to alert level one at the same time. The settings will be reviewed again on Monday.

The community around Papatoetoe High School has been asked to stay home, however. The school will remain closed until February 22, and everyone will need a negative test before returning.

Alert level two means schools and businesses can reopen tomorrow, but hospitality businesses will be subject to extra regulations – guests must be seated, separated and served by just one person – and there will be restrictions on gatherings.

Aucklanders can now leave the region but Ardern asked them to “take their alert level with them”.

An additional element of the new restrictions will be a requirement for face coverings on public transport nationwide, said Ardern. Initially they were mandatory only at level two and above, but became mandatory in Auckland at all levels in November last year. That will now be extended to cover all of New Zealand “for now”, said Ardern. It was yet to be decided if the requirement would be for the long term.

Ardern said the discussion in cabinet wasn’t on whether to move Auckland down at all, but whether to move it to level two or one, and the length of time to remain there.

Third household member tests positive

Meanwhile, a further member of the household of the two new Covid-19 cases announced earlier today has tested positive for Covid-19, said director general of health Ashley Bloomfield. The two new cases today, known as cases D and E, were a close contact of the teenager from Papatoetoe High School and their sibling. The pair weren’t symptomatic while they were at school.

All cases so far are, encouragingly, in a “tight configuration with clear epidemiological links”, said Bloomfield. Contact tracing of the new community cases from earlier today is well under way and locations of interest they have visited will be released shortly.

One of the cases worked at a McDonald’s, confirmed Bloomfield, but has been asymptomatic.

Ardern thanked cases A and B – the mother and daughter who tested positive at the weekend – for getting tested.

4.15pm: Cabinet meets to decide on alert levels

Cabinet is currently meeting to decide whether the current restrictions will end tonight at 11.59pm or be extended. Auckland is currently at alert level three and the rest of the country at level two. We’ll bring you the live stream and rolling updates here.

3.30pm: The member knows what the eggplant emoji means

Political editor Justin Giovannetti reports on this important development:

Question Time today ended with a moment of levity when internal affairs minister Jan Tinetti spoke about the government’s recent online campaign which featured porn stars and groomers. Searches for pornography on school networks were down after the ads were released. It was a big win, she said.

With the kids dealt with the next target might need to be adults. “Some people of the boomer generation don’t yet know what an eggplant means,” said Tinetti.

The camera then cut to a grinning speaker Trevor Mallard. “Woah,” he said. “I think I’m older than a boomer so the member probably hasn’t insulted me.”

And scene. Question Time ends.

A grinning Mallard
Democracy in action (Image : parliament tv)

Watch the full exchange here.

2.50pm: What decision could be announced at 4.30pm?

At 4.30 this afternoon we’ll know whether or not Auckland will shift down from alert level three and whether the rest of the country will return to the relative normality of level one.

Of course, until then, there is nothing more to do than speculate. To be clear, we have absolutely no idea what Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield will say at 4.30. But, here are three possibilities.

No change: Auckland will remain in level three and the rest of the country in level two. After the two new community cases announced today, no change to the alerts remains a real possibility. There are also a lot of test results still to come in, including from 49 close contacts of the original three community cases.

Auckland moves to “level 2.5”: After last August’s community outbreak, Auckland spent some time in limbo between levels three and two. Ashley Bloomfield referred to it as level 2.5 or “two-plus”. In effect, this meant Aucklanders were free to socialise but with restrictions on gathering sizes in place and mask wearing mandatory.

Auckland moves to level two: It’s what we’re all hoping for; Auckland moves down a full tier to the comfort of alert level two. Gathering restrictions would be at 100 and we could all return to our normal day-to-day lives, with just a few restrictions in place.

Once again, I’ve got absolutely no clue what’s going to happen – and today’s developments make predicting both more challenging and fruitless. We’ll soon find out.

2.05pm: Marcus Lush elected to Invercargill Council

Newstalk ZB’s night host Marcus Lush is the newest member of the Invercargill Council, having won today’s by-election resoundingly.

As the Herald reported, voting for the by-election closed at midday today, with Lush taking over 7000 of the 13,991 counted votes.

“While special votes still need to be counted, as well as any votes dropped off to our ballot boxes today, the margin between the candidates is significant enough that we are confident Mr Lush will be your next councillor,” said deputy electoral officer Michael Morris said.

1.20pm: 49 close contacts still awaiting test results; no evidence of Covid-19 from wastewater

There are still 49 close contacts associated with the recent outbreak yet to receive the results of their Covid-19 test. It follows two new community cases, both linked to Papatoetoe High School, returning positive results overnight.

Contact tracing has identified 128 close contacts associated with Cases A, B and C from the Auckland February outbreak. Of these, 76 have tested negative and one positive – Case D, announced at 12pm.

Case investigation and contact tracing for Cases D and E is currently underway, said the ministry.

As at 11.30am this morning, a total of 31 close contacts and 1523 casual plus contacts have been identified at Papatoetoe High School. Of those, 29 close contacts have returned negative results, one positive result (Case D), and one is outstanding.

Of the casual plus contacts, 1159 have returned negative results, there is one positive (Case E – the sibling of Case D), and 363 are outstanding. “It’s important to note that Case E is a close contact of Case D, but for the purpose of test reporting is classified as casual plus,” said the ministry.

There is also one new case in managed isolation to report today: a recent returnee from Kazakhstan.

No evidence of community Covid-19 cases in wastewater

Wastewater testing has so far found “no evidence of any community cases of Covid-19”, the Ministry of Health said.

Results for Monday February 15:

  • Auckland Western and Eastern Interceptors, North Shore (Rosedale), Rotorua, and Christchurch all returned negative.
  • The South Western Interceptor (Auckland) returned a positive result, which is a consequence of Covid-19 cases at the Auckland quarantine facility. The levels detected are consistent with those seen over the last month.
  • Samples collected from the Papatoetoe catchment area arrived this morning and are being processed today. Hamilton samples are also being processed today.

Further results will follow as they are received and tested throughout the week, the ministry said.

12.55pm: More details set to be revealed after new cases announced

The Ministry of Health will be sending out a press release about 1pm, revealing more details on the two new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the Auckland community.

We’ll have that full release here as soon as it drops and more information on the new cases is below.

12.05pm: Two new community cases linked to Papatoetoe school

Updated:

There are two new cases of Covid-19 in the Auckland community, both linked to Papatoetoe High School.

The school was attended by one of the previously confirmed cases: the daughter of the LSG Sky Chefs worker.

One of the new cases is a close contact of the daughter and the other is the new case’s sibling.

The news was revealed ahead of today’s 1pm announcement by Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins, who is facing a grilling from opposition MPs in the health select committee.

“The two new cases are both siblings in the same household. One was a close contact [and] the other was a casual plus contact,” Hipkins told the committee.

Officials were looking into the new cases but it’s still “early information”.

Ashley Bloomfield, who is also facing questions in the committee, confirmed the close contact was a class mate of the previously confirmed Covid-19 case and was thus tested early on. Their sibling was deemed a casual plus contact and tested as part of the broader school cohort.

Hipkins said the picture the government will be looking at before today’s alert level decision is still incomplete, with health officials still awaiting the results of hundreds of tests before cabinet meets at 3pm. Over 400 tests are still outstanding from the high school attended by the two new cases, along with nearly 100 tests from the mother’s workplace.

Dozens of tests from close contacts of the original three cases are also still being awaited.

A further update can be expected at 1pm with the final decision on alert levels set to be revealed at 4.30pm (see more: 12pm update).

Hipkins avoids question on Māori and Pasifika vaccine strategy

Dr Neru Leavasa, the MP for Takanini, asked Hipkins how Māori and Pasifika communities, being more vulnerable, were being considered in the vaccine roll out.

Hipkins explained the first tranche of vaccinations would be assigned to border workers, and identified Māori and Pacific as being “strongly represented in our border workforce”.

“That includes people who are working in managed isolation, working at the airport, working in quarantine and so on. They will be well represented there.”

“We’ve made the decision to add their whānau, their families, their household contacts to the first wave of vaccinations.”

Hipkins went on to explain the second tranche that will target the rest of the health workforce and others who are working in high risk settings. No mention was made of a strategy specifically designed for Māori and Pasifika communities.

12.00pm: The agenda – when will we know if the alert levels are changing?

At 4.30pm today the prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield will announce whether or not Auckland is leaving alert level three at 11.59pm tonight.

Here are all the other important timings for today:

12pm: Chris Hipkins will face questions from opposition MPs during a sitting of the health select committee.

1pm: The Ministry of Health will issue its traditional press statement. This will reveal if any new cases have been confirmed overnight.

1.45pm: The PM and other ministers will face media on their way into the House.

2pm: Question time!

3pm: Cabinet will meet to discuss the latest Covid-19 information and make its official decision on alert levels and other related matters.

4.30pm: The official announcement will be made. Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield will reveal all from the Beehive theatrette.

10.50am: NZ to end Afghanistan deployment

After 20 years in Afghanistan, New Zealand troops are set to withdraw in May this year, Jacinda Ardern has announced.

“The deployments to Afghanistan have been one of the longest running in our history, and I wish to acknowledge the 10 New Zealanders who lost their lives in the line of duty, and the more than 3500 NZDF and other agency personnel, whose commitment to replace conflict with peace will always be remembered,” the prime minister said in a statement.

The decision to conclude the deployment had been discussed with our country’s key partners, said foreign affairs minister Nanaia Mahuta. “New Zealand will continue to be supportive of the Afghan government and its people in the years to come, including as they work through the intra-Afghan peace process in an effort to resolve the decades-long conflict,” Mahuta said.

This decision comes at a time when the new Biden administration is looking at whether it should remain on its existing timetable to pull out all troops by the end of this year or, as Congress has demanded, leave troops in the country as Afghan forces collapse throughout the country under renewed Taliban assault.

On The Spinoff: How NZ sleuths are investigating the new mystery Covid cases

Here’s an extract from the latest piece by Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris:

The new community cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand remain a bit of a mystery. Fortunately, as of this morning there is no evidence of any further community spread. But, strange as it may at first glance seem, these cases offer an opportunity for the country’s public health and science systems to shine.

On Sunday we all groaned a collective sigh when it was announced that a family in Auckland had tested positive for Covid-19. A few hours later, Jacinda Ardern announced that Auckland would be moving to alert level three and the rest of the country to alert level two for three days to limit any further transmission while health officials gathered more information.

There were two reasons to be so cautious. The first was the worry that the family may be infected with one of the newer more infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a suspicion confirmed by genome sequencing results on Monday. The second reason was because, unlike our more recent community cases, the family aren’t directly linked to our managed isolation and quarantine system. None of the family work at a facility or had recently travelled back from overseas.

At the moment it’s a bit of a mystery how the family came into contact with the virus. We’ve got some leads, the biggest one being that one family member has a job handling laundry items from international flights. You might have heard some experts dismissing this as a possible source of transmission. As they’ve put it, despite the millions of confirmed cases globally, there are no documented cases of the virus spreading this way. And they are right. But just because it hasn’t been documented yet doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. It’s worth remembering that most of the almost 110 million confirmed cases are from countries with so much community transmission that they aren’t able to identify how people became infected.

Check out the full piece here.

9.50am: Fletcher Building reports strong earnings on back of housing construction boom

Business editor Michael Andrew reports:

Fletcher Building has benefited from the residential construction boom to report a 47% increase in operating profit in its latest half-year results.

The company reported before tax and interest earnings of $323 million, up from $219 million in HY20 and net profit after tax of $121 million, up 48% from $82 million in HY20.

The results come not long after Stats NZ released figures showing that in the December quarter of 2020 the number of consents on new houses were the highest in 48 years.

CEO Ross Taylor credited the robust residential sector, which he said had offset slower commercial growth to bring half-year earnings well above forecasts. “In all businesses, we have remained focused on executing our strategy, especially improving the underlying disciplines and efficiencies of our operations.

“Current indicators point to core volumes in NZ and Australia remaining at present levels through the second half, with robust demand for residential housing in NZ.  This market outlook assumes no material impact from Covid-19.

“Overall, we expect FY21 Group EBIT (excluding significant items) to be in the range of $610 to $660 million.”

Taylor said the board had approved an interim dividend of 12 cents per share, and said a full year dividend could also be expected.

Despite its strong financial performance, Fletcher Building has not indicated it would be paying back the $68 million wage subsidy it took last year, as companies in similar positions have done.

8.50am: Ardern, Morrison hold ‘constructive’ conversation following citizenship spat

Jacinda Ardern spoke last night with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison following his government’s decision to cancel the citizenship of a suspected Isis terrorist who moved to Australia from New Zealand at the age of six.

Ardern slammed Morrison’s decision, accusing his government of abdicating its responsibilities and telling reporters Australia should stop deporting their problems.

Now, more details about the phone call have been revealed, with a statement put out by the prime minister’s office calling it “constructive”

“Regardless of the steps taken in this case to date, both New Zealand and Australia acknowledge that this case now has a number of complexities,” a spokesperson for Ardern said. “We are working through those issues in the spirit of our relationship.”

Australian government holds ‘primary responsibility’ – Islamic Women’s Council

The Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand has released a statement siding with Jacinda Ardern in holding Australia responsible for the suspected Isis terrorist.

However, the council said things are complicated due to the woman’s two children.

“We would caution that there are two young children whose wellbeing should not be lost in any tussle between the two governments. Those children are caught up in this situation through no fault of their own.”

The council has called for both the New Zealand and Australian governments to put the children at the centre of any decision-making.

“As a normal part of the justice process, as would be the case for any other crime, the woman in this case should go through a rehabilitation and deradicalisation process to ensure that she is able to be a good parent to her children,” the council said.

“In response to the Royal Commission report into the Christchurch mosque attacks, the government announced investment into a Multi-Agency Coordination and Intervention Programme, to be led by the NZ Police. This situation shows the urgent need for such a programme, which our community on our own does not have the resourcing or expertise to develop.”

8.20am: Wait times down at Auckland Covid-19 testing centres

After the initial rush for Covid-19 tests, wait times at community testing centres around the super city were down yesterday afternoon.

As at 3pm, wait times had reduced to less than an hour in Otara, less than 30 minutes in Wiri and less than 10 minutes in Botany CTC. There were no reports of queues at any of Auckland’s other community testing sites.

Yesterday saw a boost in testing capacity that will remain in place today.

The full list of Auckland testing sites is available here.

7.45am: Covid-19 decision day – no new cases on final day of restrictions

Cabinet will meet at 3pm this afternoon to make a decision over the Covid-19 restrictions that have been in place since Monday.

At this stage, Auckland is in alert level three and the rest of the country is in level two until 11.59pm tonight.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins told RNZ he had not been informed of any new coronavirus cases overnight. That’s in contrast to last August’s Auckland cases, Hipkins said, where new cases presented quite quickly.

However, the source of the latest outbreak is still unknown. There’s a variety of “highly unlikely scenarios” that the government are looking at to determine how these cases happened. “It will have to be one of them,” Hipkins said.

On Newstalk ZB, Hipkins said the “short sharp response” of moving up the alert levels has been effective. “We’ll have more information as the day unfolds but I’m optimistic at this point.”

A decision on the alert levels will be announced at 4.30pm this afternoon and we’ll bring it to you live.

7.35am: Top stories from The Bulletin

A diplomatic rift has opened up over the case of the accused terrorist captured on the border between Syria and Turkey. The 26 year old woman was a dual citizen – the key word being was. The Turkish government says she is a terrorist who has been part of Islamic State. She still holds New Zealand citizenship, however her Australian citizenship has since been stripped. This is despite living across the Tasman for almost two decades, and travelling to Syria on an Australian passport. She also has two children, who have no connection or immediate family whatsoever with New Zealand.

The stripping of citizenship prompted a furious response from PM Ardern, who lashed out at the Australian government for “exporting its problems”. The press conference those comments were made at was covered by Justin Giovannetti, and his story notes how much of a change the tone was from what normally characterises trans-Tasman relationships. In fact, it is only really the issue of Australia deciding it doesn’t want people in their country any more that prompts this sort of animosity from the New Zealand government, be it convicted criminals or accused terrorists.

In response, Australian PM Scott Morrison said he is putting Australia’s interests first. The starkly nationalistic tone was captured in this story on the Sydney Morning Herald, who quoted him as saying “Australia’s interest here is that we do not want to see terrorists who fought with terrorist organisations enjoying privileges of citizenship”. That the woman remains any sort of danger is not clear from what is in the public domain, and I haven’t seen any reporting that suggests she did any actual fighting, or in fact what her alleged role regarding Islamic State was. Speaking to Radio NZ this morning, correspondent Hannah Lucinda Smith said women tended to play a very different role to men within ISIS.

To put the situation in context, regardless of the morality of Morrison’s position, it is likely to be good domestic politics. For obvious reasons, suspected ISIS terrorists are not popular, and Morrison is nothing if not good at reading the polls. It also isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Back in 2019, Morrison flatly refused to offer any assistance to the children of an Australian man who went to Syria to fight on behalf of ISIS, before they later got out of the country and were returned home. National’s Gerry Brownlee also offered comment on the issue, saying the government should not have been surprised about Australia’s stance, according to RNZ’s bulletins this morning.

Could New Zealand not also just cancel the woman’s citizenship? No, because that would be illegal under international law, as it would render her stateless. Because Australia’s cancellation came first, it is not illegal in the same way. However, a statement on the issue was made by the Islamic Women’s Council of NZ, which offered a position of moral clarity – particularly on the fate of the children. I’ll quote a section at length here:

“We would caution that there are two young children whose wellbeing should not be lost in any tussle between the two governments. Those children are caught up in this situation through no fault of their own. As a normal part of the justice process, as would be the case for any other crime, the woman in this case should go through a rehabilitation and deradicalisation process to ensure that she is able to be a good parent to her children.”

Read more and subscribe to The Bulletin here

7.30am: Yesterday’s headlines

There were no new cases of Covid-19 in the community or MIQ, raising hopes for an alert level decrease tomorrow.

Legislation was introduced under urgency to set up a new “resurgence support payment” for businesses affected by any resurgence of the coronavirus.

The union representing staff at LSG Sky Chefs – the company where one of the latest Covid-19 cases worked – said the woman followed all the rules to protect herself while on the job.

Jacinda Ardern hit out at Scott Morrison over the his government’s unilateral decision to revoke the Australian citizenship of a terrorism suspect who had been a dual citizen of both countries.

A number of major events scheduled for this weekend, including the Rainbow Pride in Auckland and the Art Deco Festival in Napier, have been cancelled due to ongoing uncertainty around Covid alert levels.

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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