Live updates, March 19: NZ flight to PNG; 10 new Covid-19 cases in MIQ

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for March 19, bringing you the latest news throughout the day. Get in touch at stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

3.10pm: NZDF flight to Covid-hit Papua New Guinea tomorrow

Support for Papua New Guinea, where Covid-19 has recently surged, has been announced by the foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta. PPE kits will be delivered on a NZ Defence Force flight expected to head from Auckland to Port Moresby tomorrow.

“We are providing support to the Government of Papua New Guinea as it identifies and responds to emergency needs created by the pandemic. PPE remains a priority as the health system feels the pressure,” said Mahuta.

“New Zealand is very concerned by the worsening Covid-19 situation in Papua New Guinea, and have agreed to assist where we can,” she said in a statement. “New Zealand is committed to supporting our Pacific neighbours through these unprecedented times. We need to look beyond our own borders in the fight to eradicate Covid-19 … We are also making funding available to the New Zealand High Commission in Port Moresby to respond to needs on the ground, as requested by partners in Papua New Guinea.”

In an opinion piece published this morning, former New Zealand high commissioner to PNG Marion Crawshaw expressed alarm at an apparent lack of action from the government.

1.10pm: 10 cases of Covid-19 in two days in MIQ

Ten new positive cases of Covid-19 have been detected in managed isolation since Wednesday, the Ministry of Health has announced. There are no new cases in the community.

Despite the new cases, the total number of active cases has dropped substantially due to a “process error”. On Monday, when the figure was last reported, there were 93 active cases, but today there is 55. “Some recovered cases had been discharged from a managed quarantine facility but their status was not updated from active to recovered in our reporting systems,” said the Ministry of Health.

Of today’s MIQ cases, half arrived on the India via UAE route, two testing positive at day zero, two at day three and one at day 12. Two cases came from Pakistan via UAE, testing positive at day zero, one came from the US, testing positive at day one, and one came from Papua New Guinea via Australia and tested positive at day one. The remaining case is being retrospectively reported from January, an arrival from Portugal via the UAE.

12.40pm: Christchurch mosque threat accused faces new charges; pleads not guilty

The man accused of a bomb threat made against two Christchurch mosques earlier this month faces new charges of distributing the March 15 gunman’s manifesto, reports RNZ.

The 27-year-old, who has name suppression, has pleaded not guilty to all charges and elected trial by jury. At his appearance at the Christchurch District Court this morning, the man faced seven new charges of distributing the manifesto of the March 15 terrorist. He is already facing one charge of threatening to kill. He has been remanded in custody until his next appearance on April 22.

As the Herald reports, since the man’s arrest, which came after tip-offs from the public, police and spy agencies have been criticised for failing to detect the threats themselves.

11.50am: Apple and pear industry to lose millions in export earnings

New Zealand Apples and Pears INC is expecting a $95-$100 million year-on-year drop in its export earnings.

The figure is based on a forecasted export share of the gross national crop of around 347,718 metric tonnes or 19.3 million cartons – 14% less than the year before.NZAPI, which represents all apple, pear and nashi growers in New Zealand, had initially forecasted a 7% drop in export earnings, reflecting a shortage of available labour and significant hail events in the Nelson and Central Otago regions.

“As we near peak harvest, it has become increasingly clear that we will not achieve those initial forecasts”, NZAPI CEO Alan Pollard said.

“Labour availability on orchards and in our post-harvest operations is well short of numbers needed by the industry despite doing all we can to attract New Zealanders into work. In addition, the fruit size is coming in smaller on average than we forecast”.

Pollard said the quality of the fruit had not been affected.

9.30am: International tourism placed ‘too much pressure’ on places like Queenstown, says minister

Before Covid-19, international tourism was placing “too much pressure” on hotspots such as Queenstown and Brand NZ risked being damaged as a result, according to the tourism minister.

“Research by Tourism Industry Aotearoa and Tourism NZ shows a strong sentiment that even within tourism hotspots like Queenstown, as many as 79% of residents felt there was too much pressure from international visitors,” Stuart Nash told an audience in Queenstown.

“In essence, tourism was beginning to lose its social licence to operate and we were running the very real risk of not being able to deliver on our global value proposition behind ‘Brand NZ’.”

Nash said that fundamental change will be needed in tourism once the borders reopen. “Consistent advice from within the sector, from small communities, and from external agencies like the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment demonstrate we cannot go back to the tourism model that existed prior to Covid-19.”

While mass-scale international tourism will likely not return before 2022, Nash reaffirmed that the government is focusing on trans-Tasman travel and vaccinating as many New Zealanders as possible.

“Further support for tourism in 2021 requires a more structural approach for those who need it most. I am considering potential next steps till borders re-open, such as making it easier to hibernate firms and to startup again; help to diversify regional economies over-reliant on international tourism; and deployment of tourism workers to other sectors,” he said.

Nash added that there is a “responsibility” to take an intergenerational view of tourism. “I am looking to change the rules around freedom camping, which isn’t free at all for taxpayers or ratepayers who have to pick up the tab.

“I want to take another look at pricing strategies across public assets like national parks, so that the heavy pressure of international visitors is more financially sustainable. There is scope for a fresh look at existing levies like the International Visitor Levy to help ensure the true cost of tourism is priced into the international visitor experience.”

On The Spinoff: Bernard Hickey launches new podcast

It’s a big day here at The Spinoff, with the launch of Bernard Hickey’s new podcast When the Facts Change. It’s already topped the Apple podcast charts and you can check out the first episode here.

Here’s an extract from his introduction to the podcast:

For over a decade, first home buyers have been offered reassurance and hope by the grownups running the place. Don’t worry, they’re told: “We’ve got this.” There are no silver bullets, but “we’re working on pulling all the different levers at the right time.”

Time and again they’ve been reassured and developed rational hopes. Dreams even. Surely this is not rocket science, they’ve thought. After, all we’re a sensible little democracy with a set of functional and sane leaders. Surely this is solvable.

Yet every time they have been wrong because those grownups, the regulators, the politicians and various great and good of civil society, have believed they can solve it without much pain or disruption. Without redistribution or a shift in the way we all live and work and play and pay taxes.

Every time, they thought it could be done within the rules of the game set in the early 1990s and frozen in place by MMP. That meant doing it within a framework of red lines, which are that government gets no larger than 30-35% of GDP, which means taxes and debt stay low, capital gains aren’t taxed, and expensive public infrastructure is paid for at the margin by new residents, rather than existing taxpayers and ratepayers at large. The other red line is that 1-2% population growth from net migration is acceptable and even desirable.

Yet everywhere the grownups turned, they failed to tame the housing unaffordability beast and ended up staring wistfully at these red lines, looking over their shoulders and failing even to try to jump over them.

Read more here.

Hear Bernard talk housing with guests Jarrod Kerr, Nicola Willis and Helen O’Sullivan in the first episode of When the Facts Change, his new weekly podcast created by The Spinoff together with Kiwibank. Subscribe now via your favourite podcast provider.

8.30am: Wiggles received death threats over MIQ backlash

Who’d have thought we’d see the day where The Wiggles faced the threat of being online cancelled. The children’s entertainers have revealed they faced death threats after getting spots in our managed isolation and quarantine facilities.

Speaking to Newshub’s The Project last night, the Australian group said they had no idea of the controversy they’d caused. “We were in Australia when that happened,” said Anthony Field – the blue wiggle. “We were just following orders when we filled out so we thought we’d done everything right and then we started getting death threats on emails and we thought ‘what’s going on in New Zealand?'”

The group spent time in managed isolation ahead of an upcoming nationwide tour, but Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said no returning New Zealander had missed out on a spot in MIQ to The Wiggles. “Sometimes there are cancellations, rooms become available and I think they have managed to find a way to accommodate them,” Hipkins said.

Field said the group apologised to any upset New Zealanders: “We apologise for whatever we caused, and of course if we took someone’s place that we shouldn’t have, we would give that place up tomorrow and/or yesterday.”

8.00am: AstraZeneca vaccine ruled ‘safe and effective’, despite health concerns

European health officials have ruled the Oxford AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is safe after a number of countries stopped rolling it out due to reported blood clotting problems.

Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Norway and Denmark are just some of the countries that had halted the vaccine roll-out over these concerns.

Now, the European Medicines Agency has determined that the vaccine is, in fact, safe. “Our scientific position is that this vaccine is a safe and effective option to protect citizens against Covid-19,” said the head of the agency, Emer Cooke. “If it were me, I would be vaccinated tomorrow.”

UK prime minister Boris Johnson will be getting the Oxford jab this week as part of his government’s plan to show its efficacy. “The Oxford jab is safe, the Pfizer jab is safe, what isn’t safe is catching Covid,” he said.

Here in New Zealand, the government has chosen the Pfizer vaccine as its primary option. There will be enough of that jab for all New Zealanders. However, we also have a deal with AstraZeneca: an advance purchase agreement of 7.6 million doses was signed off by the government, enough for 3.8 million people.

7.30am: Top stories from The Bulletin

At first glance, this may seem like a small issue, but I reckon it’s a deceptively major one for the balance of power between central and local government. Stuff’s Henry Cooke reports the government intends to strip councils of decisions over whether to fluoridate water, and invest it instead in the director general of health – currently Dr Ashley Bloomfield. The change is being driven by associate health minister Dr Ayesha Verrall, who has revived and revised a previous National party bill. Water fluoridation (which is considered safe and effective by scientific consensus) has been a hugely contentious issue at the local level for a long time, in some cases resulting in significant political wins for anti-fluoridation activists.

What is fluoridation? It’s a chemical that is added in extremely low quantities to water supplies, in order to promote dental health. And studies have largely shown it to work effectively – one quoted in the Stuff story found that children living in fluoridated areas have tooth decay rates 40% lower than those living in non-fluoridated areas. A lot of fluoride will kill you – but to get that effect from the water supply would take drinking hundreds of litres in a single sitting.

Why does this matter as a story about divisions of power? There sometimes seems to be a perception around central government that local government simply isn’t competent to handle their entrusted responsibilities. I explored that a bit in this piece about local government, in relation to water infrastructure reform. To a technocratic and science-minded government (which we currently have, for better or worse) having a question like this be subject to the whims of local voters probably doesn’t make any sense, because they might vote for something that cuts against public health outcomes. A major change in this bill is the centralisation – previously the bill would have given that power over fluoridation to elected District Health Boards – those elections tend to have very low voting rates, and high rates of confusion about who you’re actually voting for, making them perfect targets for small but committed activist groups.

What are the scientists saying? The consensus about fluoride being safe is pretty firm, according to the expertise gathered up by the Science Media Centre. There was also applause for the decision, with Professor Barry Borman of Massey saying “it is about time. This should have been done years ago.” Otago Uni dentistry expert Murray Thomson also said it would reduce inequality. “Widening access to community water fluoridation will help to reduce such inequalities and ensure that Kiwis of all ages can enjoy the social benefits of being able to eat, smile and talk without pain or embarrassment.” The Dental Association put out a release welcoming the “pragmatic decision.”

And what are anti-fluoridation activists saying? As far as I can tell the main lobby group Fluoride Free NZ are yet to comment, but in general terms they contest the safety and effectiveness of fluoride, while also arguing that decisions to fluoridate take away choice and bodily autonomy. I’m speculating here, but it could become one of those grievances that fuels minor party activism, in the same sort of way that 1080 and 5G does. In terms of other opposition, National’s Dr Shane Reti – a supporter of fluoridation – also raised concerns about “government overreach”, and worried it would stir up community resentment.




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