PoliticsMarch 19, 2020

Covid-19 NZ live updates, March 19: borders close to foreign nationals; indoor events of 100+ people banned, Ardern on lockdown rumours


Rolling updates on the Covid-19 outbreak for March 19 as they happen, by Spinoff writers.

The Spinoff’s coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak is funded by Spinoff Members. To support this work, join Spinoff Members here

See the latest updates for March 20 here.

6.30pm: Borders to close to foreign nationals

Jacinda Ardern has just announced that the border will be closed to all but residents and citizens from 11.59pm tonight. “This will stop tourists or temporary visa holders, including students and temporary workers from coming to and entering New Zealand,” said the prime minister at a briefing after cabinet.

Children and partners of permanent residents and citizens are also exempt.

The previous exemption applying to the Pacific islands is ended. A “small number of exemptions” for people from the Pacific islands would apply, particularly for those who need to travel for humanitarian reasons.

There will also be exemptions for key workers in the health sector.

She said she was concerned that some visitors had “not adequately” self-isolated or chosen not to. That presented an “unacceptable risk”.

“I want to acknowledge that at no time in New Zealand’s history has a power like this be used. I recognise how extraordinary it is. But we have to make decisions in the best interests of the health of those who live here,” said Ardern.

While the movement of people would largely stop, the movement of goods would continue, and could be guaranteed, she said. “Our shelves will be stocked. There is no reason to panic buy. Have a plan and prepare, but do so knowing that our supermarkets will continue to have food on their shelves if you give them the time to restock them.”

Ardern subsequently clarified that it applied to anyone who boarded after 11.59pm this evening. She said the restrictions would be reviewed on a 16-day rotation. Returning citizens and permanent residents and their families will still need to self-isolate for 14 days.

Reports that border checks and questioning had not been as “intensive” as she had expected had influenced the decision.

She said the decision was made between 4pm and 5pm, independently of a very similar decision announced in the last hour by the Australian government. She had, however, informed Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister.

Flights would continue bringing New Zealanders back to the country, “but they are diminishing”, she said.

The strategic goal was to ensure “slow and small outbreaks, rather than the tsunami”.

Read the prime minister’s speech in full here.

5.45pm: On The Spinoff today

4.35pm: Logan Park tests all return negative

Good news for the great city of Dunedin and everyone else: all 150 Logan Park High School students tested for Covid-19 have returned negative tests. “This is reassuring for the local community and for our broader public health response,” said the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield.

4.15pm: All options on the table, says Winston Peters

An urgent Cabinet meeting is currently underway, at which a range of possible new measures will be discussed. RNZ has run with the headline “Full lockdown of borders being considered”, which no doubt it is. But it’s worth nothing Peters has said that everything is up for consideration, be it school closures, closing the border or more extreme measures.

“We’ve got to look at all the possibilities,” Peters said. “The consideration of all these issues is imminent… Every day we consider the latest details and facts and today we have eight more cases all to do with travel, so this afternoon full consideration with new information will take place.”

3.35pm: Gatherings of 100 or more people banned

In an echo of the Australian decision yesterday, gatherings of more than 100 people indoors have been banned, the health minister, David Clark, has just announced. It marks an update to the existing the mass gathering policy on Covid-19, which previously prohibited groups of more than 500.

Workplaces, schools, supermarkets and public transport are exempt. Further guidance on how it applies to the hospitality industry will be developed “in conjunction with the industry over the next 24 to 36 hours”, said Clark.

“I know this will be deeply disappointing for many people, especially those who have large celebrations planned over coming weeks. While it is unfortunate, we have to put these measures in place. Reducing close contact is an essential part of our plan to protect the health of all New Zealanders, and we ask everyone to do the right thing and comply.

“In particular I want to stress to anyone who has thumbed their nose at this critical public health advice, you are putting the health of your family, your friends, and your country at risk.”

Clark said he could not say how long the measures would remain in place.

Asked if there were plans to close the borders to all foreign nationals, he said they continued to review the situation. Of reports of lax application of border measures, he said any “inconsistent measures” in the first few days had been ironed out.

Simon Bridges tweeted in support of the move, saying: “I support the indoor events ban from 100 and would support going even further on this. I also urge the government to close our borders to non-NZ residents and citizens.”

2.35pm: No new cases in Wuhan; Fiji reports positive test

According to China’s state-controlled Global Times the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of Covid-19, has gone a day with zero new confirmed cases. The virus was first detected in the city at the end of 2019 and soon swept the city, where around 2,500 people have died as a result.

That news is as encouraging as another is worrying: There is a single confirmed case of Covid-19 in Lautoka, Fiji, according to the country’s health minister.

It comes after reports last night of a suspected case in Samoa. An outbreak in the Pacific could be devastating. For more on that, and the measures undertaken across the islands, see this roundup from earlier today.

1.37pm: New Zealanders should not travel abroad – NZ government

The government has advised New Zealanders not to leave the country due to Covid-19, Winston Peters has announced.

“We are raising our travel advice to the highest level: do not travel,” he said in a statement. The advisory is unprecedented. “This is the first time the New Zealand government has advised New Zealanders against travelling anywhere overseas. That reflects the seriousness of the situation we are facing with Covid-19.

“New Zealanders who travel overseas risk contracting Covid-19. At the same time, health care systems in many countries are under strain and do not have the capacity to support foreigners.”

It follows the move yesterday to urge all New Zealanders currently travelling overseas to consider returning home immediately. “Borders are closing. You may not be able to return to New Zealand when you had planned to. You should therefore organise to come home now.”

1.20pm: We are expecting more cases, says Dr Bloomfield

The are eight new positive cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, has announced. All are related to recent international travel. One is in hospital. Contact tracing is under way for all of them.

There are two cases in each of Southland, Taranaki and Auckland, and one each in Rotorua and Northland.

Asked if the Taranaki case involved Womad, which was held over the weekend while events around the country were cancelled, Bloomfield said, “No, not that I know of.”

It brings the total number of positive tests to 28.

“We still don’t have any evidence of wider community transmission in New Zealand,” said Bloomfield at the daily briefing.

Most of the tests of close contacts of the Logan Park High School student have now come back, and all returned negative results. The ministry is now waiting on the final batch of results.

Asked about the rumours around a nationwide lockdown that have circulated rapidly this morning, Bloomfield said: “Someone mentioned that to me as I was on my way in here, and that’s not something that I’ve heard discussed by anybody.”

On whether a lockdown was an option, he said: “We’ve seen other countries do that. When they have tended to do that is when they have a very high proportion of cases with community spread. Or aim is to prevent that community spread, and to do what we need to do to avoid that wider spread.”

Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield hold press conferences about Covid-19.

1.05pm: Social distancing urged

Jacinda Ardern has been speaking to media in Rotorua. On remote working and social distancing, she said: “My message to every New Zealander is if you can’t be apart when you’re together, reconsider. We must make sure that we’re keeping our distance.”

It was a matter, she said, of whether New Zealand ended up following the trajectory of Singapore, which has been comparatively successful in stamping out Covid-19, or “one of those countries in Europe”.

12.56pm: Beware of unsubstantiated rumours, says PM

The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has urged New Zealanders to beware rumours circulating online.

“This is not unique to New Zealand. In the midst of what is a global issue, as you would expect, there are a number of rumours that circulate,” she told media in Rotorua.

“I am present on social media, I see it myself. I cannot go around and individually dismiss every single rumour I see … as tempted as I might be. So instead I want to send a clear message to the New Zealand public: We will share with you the most up-to-date information daily. You can trust us as a source of information.” She encouraged anyone concerned to consult the official government sites. “Otherwise, dismiss everything else.”

One particular message has spread rapidly this morning, claiming inside knowledge of plans for a lockdown. She said she was aware of the message. “that’s the kind of thing that adds to the anxiety people feel … Do not panic, prepare. When you see those messages, remember that unless you hear it from us it is not the truth.”

11.50am: An on-the-ground report from a school principal

In an email to The Spinoff, the principal of a rural North Island school describes the mood at “pensive”. He writes: “People are trying very hard to carry on as normal with the knowledge that things are very likely going to get worse before they get better. As for the staff at school, we are trying to stay positive and upbeat for our kids and school whanau. And the kids, well they are just kids – they know that stuff is going on that is affecting the grown-ups in their lives. Some are grumpy that sport is being cancelled but on the whole the kids at our school are happy, positive, keen to be hanging out with their mates, but seem to be getting a little sick of being told to wash their hands and not to wipe their noses on their shirt sleeves.”

An update on the public gathering policy that currently restricts events to 500 people or fewer is expected from the minister of health at 3.30pm.

10.50am Siouxsie Wiles addresses decision to keep schools open

On RNZ this morning, Siouxsie Wiles addressed parents’ concerns around the safety of schools.

“I have a daughter. She has gone to school today. I am not concerned about her going to school,” she told Morning Report. “The countries that we are modelling ourselves on, the ones that are controlling this, are acting as we are; they’re not doing mass closures until they’re absolutely necessary. The strategy is, if there’s a case in a school, that school will be shut while the contact tracing is done and the school is cleaned. And then it’s safe for everybody to go back.

“If we start closing all the schools now, that puts a massive burden on everybody. Where are those children going to go? What happens if their parents are frontline healthcare workers who we need? It’s a tool that we really only need when we need to use it.”

10.30am Latest international news

As the severity of the global crisis continues to grow, world leaders are issuing stark warnings about just how bad things could get. In a prerecorded televised message to the German people, chancellor Angela Merkel called for solidarity and said that the nation was facing its gravest challenge since World War II, while in the US, president Donald Trump announced he was invoking the Defense Production Act, a law that gives the government emergency authority to marshal the private sector to deal with the coronavirus crisis. Meanwhile Trump and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau jointly announced the closure of the US-Canada border to all non-essential traffic. The North American border had originally been exempt from Canada’s border closures announced earlier this week.

In the UK, prime minister Boris Johnson announced the closure of all schools, colleges and nurseries in England from Friday “until further notice”; GCSE and A-Level exams will not be held this year. Wales and Scotland had already announced their schools would close from tomorrow. Meanwhile, Italy posted its worst one-day death toll of the crisis. The 475 deaths it recorded yesterday also represents the highest single-day death toll anywhere in the world. The total death toll in Italy is now 2,978.

The scale of the challenge was reinforced by remarks by the World Health Organisation director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who called the virus an “enemy against humanity”. He also sounded a note of optimism, however, pointing to the lessons to be learned from South Korea’s success in fighting community transmission, and announcing the Solidarity trial, a major international study allowing nations to share best practices and the most effective medical treatments.

9.15am: Kāinga Ora responds to tenant concerns around safe practices

A Kāinga Ora tenant has raised concerns about how the state housing provider is responding to the pandemic. In an email to The Spinoff, the tenant, who is immuno-compromised, said she was accustomed to asking visitors to wash their hands, but in the past has had a Kāinga Ora contractor laugh at this suggestion. On Friday, she was visited without notice by two Kāinga Ora staff and, without thinking, shook their proffered hands.

In response to The Spinoff’s queries, a Kāinga Ora spokesperson said the agency was finalising its formal pandemic plan, but was following Ministry of Health hygiene guidance around personal contact and the use of tools and equipment. The spokesperson said the agency would be dedicating teams to check on its more vulnerable tenants, and recording potential issues to be prepared for if visits were required. “This includes if our tenants are required to self-isolate, or they or their family members are unwell.”

The spokesperson said the agency was encouraging tenants to call support centres or use the free MyKāingaOra service to log issues, track updates and access the latest health information and guidance. 

7.45am: Border restrictions could be extended to Pacific

The Ministry of Health’s director general Dr Ashley Bloomfield has told Morning Report on Radio NZ that considerations are underway for extending existing travel restrictions to Pacific nations. They are currently exempt from border controls, but with a suspected case in Samoa that may change. He has also signalled that he expects to announce more cases in New Zealand in the coming days.

He will announce the additional cases later today. We’re also expecting the prime minister to reveal new rules around social distancing. It would not be a surprise to see New Zealand follow Australia’s lead from yesterday and prohibit indoor gatherings of 100 people.

Asked by RNZ whether the school holidays might be brought forward, Bloomfield said: “Everything’s on the table. The challenge here is to think what you might need to do in two weeks’ time and bring it forward and do it today.”

Overnight, Britain announced schools would be closed. To date more than 200,000 people have tested positive for Covid-19, across 157 countries. More than 8,000 people have died.

7.30am: ICU system bracing for impact

With the Covid-19 pandemic affecting a small proportion of patients so severely that they need intensive care, how is our system set up to handle that? Dr David Galler is on the front lines, and has given us this report on the mood there.

In 2003 hospital and intensive care staff managed a surge in work associated with the SARS epidemic (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome); and again in 2009 as a result of the “swine flu” caused by the H1N1 variant of the Influenza A virus. As busy as those periods were the workload this pandemic might create could be so much bigger and that might be our biggest challenge.

SARS and the “swine flu” taught us a lot about how best to manage these complex patients and as this pandemic unfolds every day we are learning more and more from the experience of our colleagues in those other jurisdictions where community spread has already occurred.

7.27am: Aviation support package coming today

An aviation industry support package will be announced today in Queenstown, and is expected to contain more specific details about Air NZ. They were not specifically included in a previous announcement made earlier in the week of $600 million for the industry, which was aimed more at infrastructure and border controls. The national carrier is right up against it, having already made savage cuts to schedules and with heavy job losses on the way. That’s a worry for the whole country, because Air NZ are a vital link in the supply chains connecting New Zealand to the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson are in Rotorua for meetings with local businesses and iwi. Untypically, Ardern travelled aboard a NZ Air Force plane.

7.23am: Updates from The Spinoff’s Bulletin

A suspected case of Covid-19 is currently being tested in Samoa, bringing to light concerns that the coronavirus could be devastating in the Pacific. Stuff reports the person being tested is an Auckland resident, who flew to the country on Wednesday last week. He then presented to hospital in Samoa yesterday morning, after having flu-like symptoms for two days. If it is confirmed, it would be the country’s first case. Contact tracing is currently underway, and because the samples had to be sent to Australia for testing, results will not come back in for 10-20 working days.

A major fear that health authorities around the world have with Covid-19 is that spikes in cases can overwhelm the health system, meaning that people with all sorts of conditions suffer. This is particularly the case with the Pacific, where resources are already incredibly stretched. We all saw last year how badly Samoa was hit by the measles epidemic, and everyone will be striving to avoid a repeat of that. Those views are expressed strongly in this piece in the Samoa Observer by Sapeer Mayron, who spoke to a doctor about the measures being put in place in their clinic. This other Samoa Observer piece by Soli Wilson focuses in on the effect that an outbreak could have on staff themselves – further stretching the capabilities to fight off the virus.

Because of those concerns, border control for Pacific nations remains the most important line of defence. The Spinoff’s Alice Webb-Liddall has gone over a series of countries and outlined how strict the measures are for each. Most are banning cruise ships, and in the case of Nauru all but one fortnightly Brisbane flight has been cancelled. The economic effect that it takes on all of them will be severe and painful, given the importance of tourism in the region, but it’s a price they have no choice but to pay to protect people.

Back in New Zealand, there has been a spike in confirmed cases – that is covered off among other important news in our live updates page from yesterday. It’s important to note that all of those cases are related to international travel, and there is still no confirmed case of community transmission within New Zealand. Police checks are being carried out on overseas arrivals to make sure they’re self-isolating as they should be.

And a large-scale contact tracing effort is underway relating to the Logan Park High School student who tested positive. They had around 150 close contacts, all of whom will need to go into self-isolation. The school closure has now been extended further to at least next week to ensure the safety of all staff and students. According to the ministry of education, in general terms, all schools will continue to stay open for the foreseeable future, however contingency plans are being made for individual schools with suspected or confirmed cases to be rapidly shut down and cleaned.

MFAT has advised New Zealanders temporarily overseas to try and return home immediately, in an update to their general Covid-19 travel advice. They also say that all non-essential travel to other countries should be deferred or cancelled. A reminder – regardless of citizenship status, all arrivals will be required to self-isolate for 14 days. There are an estimated 80,000 New Zealanders currently travelling overseas, all of whom will have people back home hoping for their safety, and those who decide to stay are being told to follow the advice of local authorities and keep people informed of their plans.

Keep going!