PoliticsSeptember 19, 2021

Live updates, September 19: Three people outside level four border in Waikato test positive


Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for September 19. Auckland is currently at alert level four, the rest of NZ level two. Our coverage of the Covid response depends on members’ contributions. Click here to learn more.

9.35pm: Three contacts of prisoner in level two Thames Valley household test positive

Three household members of the prisoner who tested Covid positive on Friday night have also returned positive tests, the Ministry of Health has announced in a statement. Two are students at Mangatangi School on the Hauraki Plains. All three positive cases, and one adult caregiver, are being moved to a quarantine facility. There are nine people in the household. Five others have tested negative and the ninth will be tested tomorrow.

“At least one of the young people was symptomatic at school on Thursday. The school has been closed and parents have been contacted. Arrangements are being made for the students and their families to be tested,” according to the ministry.

“The remand prisoner was released on e-monitored bail from Mt Eden Prison on September 8 to a residence in the Firth of Thames. Electronic monitoring shows he remained at the property from when he arrived on September 8 until he self-reported to Police at the East Coast Road boundary checkpoint at Waharau Regional Park. He was held in custody in a cell on his own until his court appearance in the Manukau District Court on Friday September 17.”

A pop-up testing centre will open tomorrow at the Wharewaka Marae in Whakatīwai. Anyone in the area with symptoms has been encouraged get tested.

2.40pm: Black Caps arrive in Dubai; extra MIQ space needed to accommodate early return

A group of 34 Black Caps players and staff arrived in Dubai this morning (NZ time) after calling off their cricket tour of Pakistan due to a security threat, having left Islamabad late last night on a charter flight.

They will now undergo 24 hours of self-isolation in their hotel rooms, according to a statement from New Zealand Cricket, and 24 members of the group will fly on to New Zealand as rooms in MIQ become available over the week to come.  The remaining 10 will stay in the UAE and join up with the Black Caps squad for the T20 World Cup, which starts on October 17.

At today’s 1pm press conference, the prime minister said MIQ was working with NZ Cricket to secure additional capacity to accommodate all the returnees.

2.20pm: $32m funding for research into infectious diseases announced

At today’s 1pm Covid update, the prime minister announced new funding for an infectious diseases research platform, totalling $32 million over three years.

Thanking the research community for their contribution to the Covid-19 response, associate health minister Ayesha Verrall said the funding would help prepare New Zealand for future pandemics. Its first focus would be improving prevention and control, including through better understanding of disease transmission and further research into vaccines. A second focus would be the management of infectious diseases, such as through diagnostics, surveillance and therapeutics.

“Reducing the impact of infectious diseases on Māori and Pacific people, and promoting the development of our next generation of pandemic scientists, are key drivers of this work,” said Verrall.

2.00pm: Driver attempted to cross level boundary by ‘cutting through paddocks’

A vehicle yesterday attempted to exit the Auckland region near the Pukekawa checkpoint by “cutting through paddocks”, according to a statement from police. “Staff with local knowledge caught up with this vehicle further south of the checkpoint heading toward Huntly. They were turned around and issued with an infringement notice,” said a spokesperson.

Police have also encountered attempts to cross through checkpoints using false documents, including self-written exemptions. Another couple presented a letter stating Covid tests had been completed yesterday. “Staff made enquiries and soon realised the location the couple said they were tested at was closed yesterday. The couple were turned around and directed to get a test at an open facility.”

These were some of “a few isolated incidents of people making deliberate attempts to breach the restrictions and cross the alert level boundary”, said the spokesperson, but compliance was broadly encouraging and “only a small number of vehicles are continuing to be turned around”.

At the latest count, 84 people have been charged with a total of 88 offences since level four came into force.

1.45pm: More details on Covid case at Mt Eden prison

Corrections has provided more detail around the prisoner who tested positive for Covid-19 at Mt Eden Prison. The man arrived on Friday evening, having appeared the previous day at Manukau District Court, and was tested. At alert levels three and four all newly arrived prisoners are tested on arrival and on days five and 12. “The man was secured in his cell at 9.10pm and therefore had very limited contact with other prisoners and staff. He has now been moved into a dedicated quarantine area and is being cared for by fully vaccinated staff wearing PPE, including masks, gloves, gowns and eye protection. These staff will not have contact with other staff, effectively forming a bubble,”  said Neale Beales, chief custodial officer, in a statement. The man was “double bunked” on Friday night, and the man he shared a cell with has also been moved to quarantine. 

Those two prisoners were transported to the prison in a group of 13 by First Security, who have been advised of the test result, along with Police and the Ministry of Justice. “A further six additional prisoners have been identified as potential close contacts of the man and are also being managed in line with our quarantine protocols,” said Beales. “All new receptions into custody are transported in a secure vehicle and both prisoners and staff are required to wear PPE. Our prisoner escort vehicles have enhanced cleaning procedures in place to prevent any potential for the virus to spread between movements.”

There have been no prison visits, as part of level four protocols. “As an organisation, our top priority is safety – of the public, our staff, visitors to our sites and the people we are managing in prisons and the community,” said Beales. “As we have seen in prisons internationally, the impact can be devastating. We have a duty of care to the men and women we manage in prisons, and to our staff, and we are well prepared for this situation.”

As of last weekend, 564 staff at Mt Eden had received at least one vaccination, with 389 of those fully vaccinated, while 481 prisoners had received their first dose, including 10 fully vaccinated. It is not specified in the statement how many prison staff are yet to be vaccinated. Aotearoa’s total prison population, however, is 8,069 and 5,423 have had their first dose.

1.40pm: Today’s cases, charted

 For 12 more live graphs that tell the story of the delta outbreak in New Zealand, check out The Spinoff Covid tracker.

1pm: 24 new cases, including a Mt Eden prisoner – Ardern and McElnay give Covid-19 update

There are 24 new cases of Covid-19 in the community today, all in Auckland, the Ministry of Health has announced. According to an emailed statement sent at 1pm, six were yet to be linked to the outbreak, but at a press conference, director of public health Caroline McElnay said only three were yet to be linked. The ministry has now sent out an updated statement to reflect this.

Nineteen of today’s cases are household contacts. The community outbreak now numbers 1,050, and there are 12 unlinked cases from the past two weeks, according to the statement, but McElnay said that as of this morning, there are actually only four. Six (30%) of yesterday’s 20 cases were infectious in the community.

McElnay said a number of new cases are expected in the coming days, as some recent cases come from large households. Contacts are already in isolation.

Of yesterday’s cases, all 20 have now been linked to the outbreak. There are 13 people in hospital with Covid-19, four in intensive care.

There are nine epidemiologically linked sub-clusters. Of these, one is active, seven are contained and one is dormant. The three largest sub-clusters are the Māngere church group: 384; and Birkdale social network cluster: 80; secondary community transmission associated with the Māngere church group 167. There are 10 epidemiologically unlinked sub-clusters.

‘Delta’s tail is long and it is tough’ – Ardern

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said today’s numbers reflect the “ongoing ramifications of delta being highly infectious”, with a “domino effect” through households.

I know that this is anxious-making,” she said, “but the numbers don’t always tell the full tale.”

McElnay said “we’re still cautiously optimistic that the vast majority of this outbreak is under control”.

Mt Eden prisoner tests positive, yet to be linked to outbreak

One of today’s new yet-to-be-linked cases is a man who was remanded in custody at Mt Eden prison on Friday night. Before being taken into custody he was in the firth of Thames area, which is in the Counties-Manukau DHB and under alert level four restrictions. He was travelling with one other person and the man and his contacts have been cooperating with police, said McElnay.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said while the case has not been formally linked, there is a “tentative” link to the outbreak. She was unsure if the prisoner was vaccinated, but said overall, 67% of the prison population had received one dose. During alert levels three and four, when new inmates arrive at prison, they are tested, and then again at day five and day 12, similar to returnees in MIQ.

Two locations of interest have been added in relation to the man – one in Māngere and one in Mt Albert. Four police staff, five Corrections staff and six prisoners are considered contacts and are now isolating.

On the truck driver who was reported as a case on Friday, having travelled outside of the Auckland region, 140 have now been identified as potential contacts from locations of interest. Eighty-one of them have so far returned negative test results.

Positive wastewater detection at Pukekohe; 78% of eligible Aucklanders have had first jab

There was a positive wastewater detection in a sample from Pukekohe collected on September 15, said the Ministry of Health. This follows a positive detection on September 8 and non-detection on September 10. The result is believed to be linked to known cases in the area.

There were 13,833 swabs taken yesterday, 5,028 in Auckland.

On the vaccine rollout, Auckland DHBs have administered on average 15,375 first doses and 8,300 second doses a day, meaning 78% of eligible Aucklanders have now had their first jab, said Ardern.

12.30pm: Lockdown fatigue will be ‘big factor’ in cabinet’s decision – Michael Baker

Speaking on Newstalk ZB this morning, University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker said lockdown fatigue will come into cabinet’s decision whether or not to move Auckland to level three on Wednesday – as it should. “There are huge costs – health costs, wellbeing costs, businesses are closing and it’s harmful for economy,” said Baker. “And also, at a certain point it will get harder for some people to follow the rules. So I think that is a big factor in how long these lockdowns are extended for.”

Baker said it would be a tough decision for the government to make tomorrow, because the data tells us what was happening a week ago, rather than what’s happening now. “The information we see is people who were perhaps exposed a week ago, they incubate the virus for a few days and then they get sick. That’s telling us how well the lockdown was working a week ago.”

Elimination is possible at level three – but only if there are just a few remaining chains of transmission. It will be harder, he said. “We know in the past level three has been enough, combined with contact tracing, but because of delta you need to put a lot more pressure on, and four has worked very well in keeping the reproduction number below one. 

Keeping a lid on unlinked or mystery cases, of which there was just one out of 20 cases yesterday, is key, he said. “If you reduce the suppression on the virus and if there are any more than a handful of those in the community, they start to flare up as outbreaks and become difficult to control. We hope that we’re seeing those unexpected cases disappearing now, and it will be obviously dependent on whether any are detected today and tomorrow.

As to how long Auckland was likely to stay in level three, Baker said a week “may not be long enough”, but a full two weeks may also not be necessary. “We’ll still be seeing cases every day for some time,” he said, but as long as they’re clearly linked to the outbreak, “then potentially Auckland could move down quite quickly”.

He said the government would be very wary of letting people travel around the country when school holidays start in two weeks’ time, but the alternative to stamping out the virus now would be ongoing restrictions for months. “If we’re successful in extinguishing this outbreak now it opens up so many more possibilities for New Zealand for the next few months, which we won’t have if we still have smouldering transmission in Auckland,” said Baker.

“The alternative isn’t we suddenly return to alert level one or two, the scenario is – as we’re seeing in Victoria and New South Wales – you have expanding spread of the virus, it gets on an exponential curve and starts going up. So what we’d have to do is stay at level two or three for several months while we get our vaccination coverage up so it doesn’t overwhelm the health system. That’s the alternative.”

11.40am: Hundreds arrested in violent lockdown protests in Melbourne

Groups of protesters broke through police lines in Melbourne yesterday, hurling projectiles. Ten police officers were injured and six taken to hospital, with at least one female police officer trampled, reports The Age.

Hundreds of protesters marched in the middle of the road from Richmond to Hawthorn, chanting “no more lockdown” and “sack [Victoria premier] Dan Andrews”, according to the report. Most were not wearing masks. Capsicum spray was used on protesters and Victoria Police northwest region commander Mark Galliott said 235 were arrested, with 193 facing fines for breaching the chief health officer’s directions. Dozens are facing charges including assault, riotous behaviour and weapons and drugs offences.

“What we saw today was a group of protesters that came together, not to protest freedoms, but simply to take on and have a fight with the police,” said Galliott.

“We’re here to help and keep the community safe. What we don’t to come to work for is to get trampled, assaulted, and end up going home with broken bones.”

10.40am: Winston Peters makes confident return to media spotlight

NZ First leader Winston Peters made a confident return to the spotlight this morning, appearing on TVNZ’s Q&A programme via video link from his home in Whananaki, Northland. The former deputy prime minister has done very few interviews since NZ First was turfed out of parliament at last year’s election. Sporting a classic pocket-square-and-polo-neck combo, Peters appeared calm and assured against a scenic seaside background as he answered host Jack Tame’s questions.

The interview covered the Aukus pact – Peters said he was “very concerned” New Zealand hadn’t been advised about it ahead of time – and New Zealand’s Covid response. “Parts of it have been brilliant and parts of it have been worrying,” said Peters, who was particularly concerned with the pace of the vaccine rollout and the slowness to introduce widespread saliva testing. He criticised the transparency and fairness of the procurement of saliva testing since the Roche-Simpson report called for it urgently in September 2020. “What happened here behind closed doors?” he asked. “I was there in cabinet when the inquiry came out and I’ve observed out of parliament that it’s not been actioned. Something dramatically went wrong inside the decision-making circles.”

It was a far cry from Peters’ last appearance on Q&A this time a year ago, when he repeatedly called host Jack Tame “James”.

9.25am: Two people arrested in Wellington after allegedly travelling from Auckland

Two people were arrested in Wellington yesterday after allegedly breaking alert level four restrictions to travel to the capital from Auckland, reports Stuff. The pair, a 24-year-old woman and a 41-year-old man, “have been charged with failing to comply with order (Covid-19) and are expected to appear in Wellington District Court on Monday”, a police spokesperson told Stuff. It’s not clear how they managed to get through the boundary.

It’s the latest in a number of incidents where people in Auckland have managed to get through the super city boundaries and exit level four, including a trio who used essential worker documents to travel to Tūroa ski field, and a couple who did the same to drive to Hamilton, from where they flew to Queenstown and drove to a Wānaka holiday home.

8.30am: Will Auckland move to level three on Wednesday? The factors that will drive cabinet’s decision

Tēnā koutou katoa, nau mai haere mai ki ngā kawepūrongo o Rātapu, te tekau mā iwi o Mahuru. Good morning and welcome to live updates for Sunday, September 19.

While the rest of the country enjoys the relative normality of delta two, alert level four drags on in Auckland. It’s day 33 today, which was the final day of the first level four lockdown in 2020. It’s been a slog, and, as Stuff reports, lockdown fatigue is setting in, with police issuing a reminder to Aucklanders that nice weather is no excuse for breaches, after people flocked to beaches yesterday.

Earlier in the week, cabinet made an “in-principle” decision that Tāmaki Makaurau would move down to alert level three at 11.59pm on Tuesday. We’ll learn tomorrow at a 4pm post-cabinet press conference if that decision stands. Yesterday’s case numbers didn’t look great, as you’ll see from the chart below, rising to 20 after four days of downward trending numbers – 15, 14, 13, 11.

Importantly, though, 19 of those cases were household or known contacts of existing cases, according to the Ministry of Health, with one yet to be linked to the outbreak. They weren’t unexpected, and were hopefully in isolation during the infectious period – we’ll find that out in today’s 1pm update. Compare that to Friday’s relatively low 11 cases, when seven were infectious in the community, and two were yet to be linked to the outbreak – among a number of cases in recent days who were found to have Covid only because they presented at Middlemore hospital and were tested as protocol, rather than because they were linked to known cases or had been at locations of interest.

“Unexpected cases and unlinked cases are much more important than the total,” epidemiologist Michael Baker told Stuff. So even if we don’t see a significant drop in case numbers today and tomorrow, if they’re all clearly linked to existing cases, the move to level three could still go ahead as planned.

But it will be a tough call for the government, as the Herald reports. “The heat is on the government from a business and economic viewpoint but at the same time we’ve still got 20 new cases today,” Auckland University public health professor Collin Tukuitonga said yesterday. While staying at level four would most likely stamp out the outbreak, “On the other hand, everybody’s a bit over level four, people need a bit of light at the end of the tunnel … it’s probably worth taking a calculated risk,” said modeller Shaun Hendy of Te Pūnaha Matatini earlier in the week.

We’ll be learning more, including today’s number of new cases, at a 1pm press conference at the Beehive – we’ll bring you all the details here.

For 13 more live graphs that tell the story of the delta outbreak in New Zealand, check out The Spinoff Covid tracker.

Yesterday’s numbers

  • There were 20 new community cases of Covid-19, all in Auckland.
  • The outbreak total is now 1,027.
  • One of today’s cases remains unlinked.
  • There are 10 people in hospital with Covid-19, including three in intensive care.
Keep going!