Live updates, November 17: PM hints at extra help for first home buyers

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for November 17. Reach me on stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

7.00pm: The day in sum

There were four new cases of Covid-19 in managed isolation

Act leader David Seymour called on Chris Hipkins to apologise after the Covid-19 response minister labelled Taiwan an “authoritarian regime”. Taiwan is a multi-party democracy.

The government launched a market study into competition and pricing in the supermarket sector.

The prime minister hinted that help was on its way for struggling first home buyers.

US company Moderna announced tests suggesting its Covid-19 vaccine is 95% effective against the coronavirus – only a few days after Pfizer reported similar results for its own vaccine.

3.50pm: PM hints at extra help for first home buyers

Help could be on the way for prospective first home buyers who feel locked out of the housing market.

The prime minister Jacinda Ardern has today indicated the government’s seeking advice around what changes could be made to make owning a first home more achievable.

Ardern said she was particularly concerned around the fact that financial support from parents appeared to be the deciding factor for many first home buyers.

“That’s not the kind of divide we want in New Zealand – it’s not who we are. We want it to be an accessible market,” Ardern said, according to the Herald.

Ardern said she was looking at “all options” when it came to the deposit required to get financing for a home loan.

It’s also possible the government could adjust the criteria for the existing first home grant. Currently, first-time buyers can access $5000, or $10,000 as a couple, towards their first property. But it’s dependent on income criteria, among other restrictions.

“Those are a good place for us to look at and say ‘are there ways that we can enable more first-home buyers the use of those products?’ and that’s one of the areas I have asked for advice around,” Ardern said.

2.45pm: Colin Craig appealing sexual harassment ruling for third time

The former leader of the Conservative Party is back in court today, appealing for the third time a ruling that he sexually harassed his ex-press secretary Rachel MacGregor.

As RNZ reports, the High Court ruled last year that MacGregor had defamed Colin Craig, while it also found he had defamed MacGregor as well as sexually harassing her.

MacGregor’s lawyers would present her case this afternoon.

Read more: Inside the doomed campaigns of Gareth Morgan, Colin Craig and Mike Lee

2.00pm: Sweden dumps herd immunity approach; implements new restrictions

Sweden is the latest European country to experience a second wave of Covid-19 cases, implementing stricter restrictions on gatherings as case numbers skyrocket.

The country faced criticism earlier in the year for a perceived “herd immunity” approach to the virus – an approach that some pundits encouraged New Zealand adopt as well.

Now, just eight people are allowed gather together, after almost 6000 new cases of the coronavirus were detected last Friday.

According to The Guardian, the new restrictions apply only to public gatherings such as sporting and cultural events, as the government cannot ban private gatherings in homes. Restaurants will stay open, with a maximum of eight diners for each table.

1.00pm: Four new cases of Covid-19, in managed isolation

There are four new cases of Covid-19 today – all recent returnees in managed isolation. Two weeks on from the first case in the November quarantine cluster being detected, there are no new community cases to report today.

Details of today’s new cases are as follows:

  • One arrived from Qatar via Australia on November 5 and tested positive at routine testing around day 12 of their stay in managed isolation.
  • Two arrived from the UK via Qatar and Australia on November 12 and tested positive at routine testing around day three of their stay in managed isolation.
  • One arrived from France via Qatar and Australia on November 12 and tested positive at routine testing around day three of their stay in managed isolation.

The total number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 is now 1,649, with 61 currently active cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand.

Yesterday, 6,146 tests were completed, bringing the total number of tests to date to 1,191,034.

November quarantine cluster

It has now been 14 days since Case A – a Defence Force worker in a managed isolation facility – tested positive for Covid-19. The Ministry of Health said it is encouraging that during this time only four cases of Covid-19 have been detected, however, “it has not yet been 14 days since the last identified cases – Case D and Case E – were out in the community”.

“While we know Case A and Case D have an identical genome, and that means Case D most likely caught Covid-19 from Case A, despite extensive investigation we have not yet been able to identify the exposure event that links these two people epidemiologically. Auckland Regional Public Health Service continues to pursue every possible angle on this source investigation,” a ministry spokesperson said.

“We are asking anyone who has visited one of the locations of interest during the relevant time period in the Auckland CBD – including the Mezze Bar and A-Z Collections – to get a test, regardless of whether they have symptoms.

“This wide surveillance testing in the area where we know Cases A and D were when they were infectious will also help us have added confidence that neither Case A nor Case D have further passed the virus on to anyone else. All surveillance testing around these two cases has to date returned negative results.”

A pop-up testing clinic on Auckland’s Freyberg Place will remain open until at least Friday, the ministry said, and anyone who has visited a location of interest within the relevant time period and has not yet been tested should do so as soon as possible.

Anyone with cold or flu symptoms anywhere in New Zealand is asked to get a test and stay home until they receive a negative result.

Routine follow-up of contacts of each of the five cases continues.

NZ Covid Tracer app

The Covid Tracer now has 2,364,900 registered users, the ministry said, with 116,664,548 poster scans and 4,839,697 manual diary entries.

Significant progress is being made on work to allow third-party integration with the Covid Tracer app and the National Contact Tracing Solution.

“Users of the Rippl app, developed by digital agency Paperkite, are already able to receive NZ Covid Tracer contact alerts and in due course will be able to share their digital diaries with the ministry when required for contact tracing,” the ministry said.

“Paperkite is now taking this one step further by trialling an automatic check-in feature that uses Bluetooth beacons. This allows Rippl users who have Bluetooth enabled to check in to select locations without needing to scan the QR codes.”

The beacons are already being trialled at several locations and will be in use at this weekend’s Beervana festival in Wellington.

The results of the trial will inform decisions by Paperkite on any further rollout of the beacons.

“Third-party integration also helps improve contact tracing by increasing the range and volume of information available to contact tracers, by allowing more New Zealanders to receive contact alerts and share their location histories, and by making it easier to contact people who may have been exposed to Covid-19.”

The Ministry expects the Rippl, SaferMe and Snapper platforms will be fully integrated with the National Contact Tracing Solution by early 2021.

12.50pm: Lawyer struck off for laundering Comanchero money

An Auckland lawyer has been removed from the barristers roll after he laundered money for the Comanchero gang.

According to the Herald, the laundering involved millions of dollars worth of “luxury cars, cash and real estate”. The 42-year-old also reportedly advised the Comancheros to keep any cash deposits under $10,000 to avoid alerting the banks.

Simpson has since been struck off the roll in order “to protect the reputation of the profession and… to maintain public confidence in the integrity of the profession”.

10.40am: Hipkins calls Taiwan ‘authoritarian’; Seymour calls for apology

The Covid-19 response minister is being criticised for labelling Taiwan an “authoritarian regime” during a morning media interview.

The comments were made by Chris Hipkins on RNZ in the context of Taiwan’s Covid-19 policies around mask wearing and cellphone tracking.

“Some of the countries that we get compared with have much more authoritarian regimes than New Zealand. If you look at Taiwan, they have a much greater degree of compliance but they have a much more authoritarian approach to how they’re doing their Covid-19 response,” Hipkins said.

However, Act Party leader David Seymour has taken issue with the statement, saying the foreign affairs minister Nanaia Mahuta should apologise to Taiwan for the comments.

“The Taiwanese fought their way from dictatorship to democracy. Far from a place of oppression, Tawian tolerates dissent. In 2014, students occupied Taiwan’s parliament, a move Hipkins would have been far too scared to contemplate in his days as a student union apparatchik,” Seymour said.

“Taiwan holds free and fair elections and was the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. To call it authoritarian shows enormous ignorance of the world around us and especially the number one country in the world for fighting Covid-19.”

Seymour added: “Freedom House, which has tracked political rights and civil liberties around the world since 1941, scores Taiwan as free, with a score of 93/100. For comparison, France scores 90 and the United Kingdom 94. Will Hipkins now call those countries ‘authoritarian,’ or is it just that people in Taiwan have Chinese sounding names?”

9.30am: Alarm raised over Reserve Bank role in housing boom

Calls are coming thick and fast for a change in approach from the Reserve Bank, to slow down an out of control housing market.

National’s shadow treasurer Andrew Bayly said the RBNZ programme of printing money and the impending “Funding For Lending” scheme is being directed at the housing market, rather than the productive economy.

“Instead, it’s likely the new funding will flow straight into the already unaffordable housing market, when it could and should go towards new house builds, local businesses and our agriculture and horticulture sectors,” said Bayly.

He called on the government to “rein in” the Reserve Bank, and outline their expectations to governor Adrian Orr that the scheme be redirected towards the productive economy. Orr caused controversy recently by pointing out that the housing market was not in the remit of the RBNZ.

He also described the current boom in house prices as a “first class problem to have”. A former Labour finance minister is also coming out with similar concerns.

Writing on Stuff, Sir Michael Cullen argues that the current situation should be raising concerns about the overall stability of the financial system, which is in the Reserve Bank’s remit.

“Little account seems to be taken of the RBNZ’s other main function – its prudential rules to ensure the financial system’s stability. The rules arguably make it hard to use the new credit to support much venture capital investment or, indeed, any risky lending to the business sector. The risk is that most of it will end up feeding the insatiable appetite of the property market.”

8.30am: Supermarket pricing to be scrutinised in new government probe

Updated

The government has followed through on one of its pre-election promises and launched a market study into pricing at supermarkets.

The study will look at whether the sector is as competitive as it could be and ensure New Zealanders are paying a fair price at the checkout.

The minister of commerce and consumer affairs David Clark said New Zealand has one of the most concentrated retail grocery markets in the world – and there are indications that competition has weakened in the sector.

“We also know that the average Kiwi household spends roughly 17% of its weekly expenses on food, and this has been increasing year on year,” Clark said in a statement.

“A market study into supermarkets will identify whether there are issues affecting competition, potentially leading to recommendations that could ensure the weekly shop is gentler on the household budget.

Some of the big supermarket chains have said there is already a healthy degree of competition in the sector, Clark said, and the government wants to test whether that is the case.

The study is the second initiated by the Labour-led government; last term, while in coalition with New Zealand First, the government launched a market study into fuel pricing.

The Commerce Commission, which is in charge of the study, is required to publish its final report on the study by November 23 next year.

Consumer NZ ‘welcomes’ market study announcement

“New Zealand has one of the most concentrated supermarket industries in the world, dominated by two players,” Consumer NZ chief Jon Duffy said.

“When you’ve got a market like this, there’s a big risk that consumers will end up paying higher prices because the usual competitive pressures don’t apply.”

7.45am: New Covid-19 vaccine 95% effective

We’re still a long way off from a Covid-19 vaccine being distributed, but the latest reports from US company Moderna show its vaccine is 95% effective against the coronavirus.

It comes not long after another company – Pfizer – reported similar results.

According to media reports, the Moderna trial involved 30,000 people, with half of those being given two doses of the vaccine. The rest were given “dummy” injections.

Only five of the Covid-19 cases contracted among the group were in people given the vaccine, while 90 were in those given the dummy treatment.

The data also shows there were 11 cases of severe Covid in the trial, but none happened in people who were immunised.

Unsurprisingly, outgoing president Donald Trump is claiming the new results as a victory for his administration.

New Zealand won’t just get ‘a single vaccine’ – Covid-19 response minister 

Speaking to RNZ, the Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins would not reveal whether New Zealand was in line to receive the Moderna vaccine.

“There’s about 230 vaccine candidates under development at the moment,” Hipkins said. “We’re monitoring them all and we’re in conversation with as many as we can be. There’s different degrees of commercial sensitivity; we announce agreements when we’e reached them.”

“Our strategy here is that we’re looking at a portfolio of vaccines, so there won’t be a single vaccine for New Zealand.”

Hipkins said New Zealand will be “front of the queue” when vaccine start to come onto the market.

7.30am: Top stories from The Bulletin

A report claiming Covid-19 was found in New Zealand meat products exported to China is causing headaches for our meat industry. The Reuters story said traces of the virus were found on beef and tripe and their packaging exported from Brazil, Bolivia and New Zealand to the Chinese city of Jinan.

That’s not what the New Zealand government had been told, however. Speaking on TVNZ’s Breakfast yesterday morning, and reiterating the point at her post-cabinet press conference in the afternoon, the prime minister said she’d been advised on Sunday that Covid had been detected on packaging of beef products from Argentina, which shared a coolstore with New Zealand products – not that New Zealand meat itself was affected. Jacinda Ardern said she was determined to get to the bottom of the claim, with MFAT promising to investigate to “ascertain the origin and veracity” of the report. “This is incredibly important to New Zealand,” said Ardern. “We are confident our products are not exported with Covid on them, given our status as being essentially Covid-19 free.”

The stakes are high, as Brent Melville writes in this (paywalled) report for BusinessDesk. Although red meat exports to China have reduced in recent months, it’s still easily the largest market for New Zealand beef and associated products. “For the June year, China accounted for $3.7 billion of NZ’s red meat exports, almost a quarter more than the previous year, as China’s demand for red meat protein spiked after African swine fever saw a massive cull of China’s pig herd.”

It was unfortunate that unsubstantiated reports were out in the international arena, Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva told RNZ’s Checkpoint. “It has the potential to damage the reputation of New Zealand red meat exports,” she said, adding that the industry moved collectively and quickly at the start of the pandemic to establish robust protocols around management of risks. But the scare was a timely reminder to exporters of the risks, trade minister Damien O’Connor said. “If they have people who are sick, working anywhere in New Zealand even though we have no community transmission, they should take all precautions and make sure people don’t come to work.”

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