Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister David Clark (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister David Clark (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

PoliticsMarch 20, 2020

Covid-19 NZ live updates, March 20: NZ cases rise to 39, four cruise ship passengers test positive

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister David Clark (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister David Clark (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

For all The Spinoff’s latest coverage of Covid-19 see here. Read Siouxsie Wiles’s work here. An explainer on self-isolation is here, on social distancing here. For updated official government advice, see here.

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

6.40pm: Recently-departed cruise ship has multiple Covid-19 cases

The Ruby Princess, which left New Zealand five days ago, has become the latest cruise ship caught up in the crisis, with three Australian passengers and one crew member testing positive for Covid-19. The ship left Sydney on March 8th before travelling to Fiordland, Dunedin, Akaroa, Wellington and Napier. From there the cruise was shortened due to weather, and returned directly to Sydney, arriving on March 18th.

There were 56 New Zealanders on board, with NZ’s Ministry of Health in the process of making contact. Any passengers on the cruise who have since returned to New Zealand would be covered by the self-isolation requirement imposed on 15 March for all travellers returning to New Zealand. The Ministry of Health is working through the itinerary of local visits to see if other precautionary steps need to be taken, while also seeking out any possible close contacts in New Zealand.

While in Wellington, a small number of passengers had flu-like symptoms, and five were tested in Wellington for COVID-19 on March 14. These people never left the ship in Wellington, and all tests were negative. One of today’s positive tests, the Auckland man in his 60s, was on a separate cruise, the Celebrity Solstice, which left Auckland on 10 March. It visited Tauranga, Picton, Akaroa, Port Chalmers before departing Fiordland on March 16, with similar protocols and tracing occurring to the Ruby Princess.

Meanwhile, NZ PM Jacinda Ardern and her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison have resolved transit issues between the two countries to ensure those caught on the wrong side of the Tasman by yesterday’s abrupt border closure can return home. A statement issued by minister of immigration Iain Lees-Galloway read: “New Zealand citizens, permanent residents, residents with valid travel conditions and their immediate family can still come to New Zealand. Australian citizens and permanent residents who normally live in New Zealand can also return to New Zealand.”

5.35pm: ‘We’ve tried to stay ahead’ – Jacinda Ardern

Appearing on RNZ’s Checkpoint programme, Jacinda Ardern has outlined the thinking behind the current approach: “We’ve tried to be preemptive … We’ve tried to stay ahead of what might happen with our cases. We will keep looking to do that. So I really want to implore people: be prepared to work from home. Be prepared to cancel non-essential travel. When we’re in a position to have to do that, we will give very strong advice on that. But in the meantime, be prepared.”

She added: “When we get spikes we can try and curtail them as quickly as we can so they just become small waves, rather than big waves, so it might mean we have to step up our activity, and then once we see those waves come down we can loosen up again.”

Asked by Lisa Owen whether New Zealanders should be prepared for the possibility of regional shutdown, Ardern said: “If we move into a phase where we’ve got outbreaks in different parts of New Zealand, we should all be prepared for that”.

On New Zealanders stuck overseas, she said: “We will be able to keep essential flights going, ensuring New Zealanders can return home”. The possibility of other flights was still “being worked through” by MFAT.

Might the election be bumped back? “No intention of changing that at this point.”

And what happens if you get a cold, Lisa Owen asked. “I will do the same thing I’m asking all New Zealanders to do. I’ll restrict my contact with other people. We’re saying to people, if you’re sick, stay home. I’m setting up provisions so that I can work from anywhere, and that’s a really important part, for me, of making sure we’ve got good continuity plans. But it’ll be pretty hard, wherever I am, to keep me from doing my job.”

Elsewhere, the New Zealand Herald is reporting that three people who visited New Zealand aboard a cruise ship, stopping at several ports, have tested positive for Covid-19 in Sydney.

5.30pm More museum and gallery closures announced

Te Papa will close from 6pm tonight until further notice, it was announced this afternoon, as will the Auckland War Memorial Museum and Motat. The closures come on the heels of an announcement earlier today that Auckland Council-run facilities including the Art Gallery would close for the foreseeable future. Christchurch Art Gallery will remain open for now, but will restrict visitors to 100 at a time, a policy that also affects the city’s libraries, swimming pools and recreation centres. Canterbury Museum remains open to all, for now, as does Otago Museum and Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

5.20pm: Samoa and Tonga close borders

National emergencies have been declared in both Samoa and Tonga, reports RNZ International. In both nations, borders will be closed to foreign nationals. In Samoa, gatherings of more than five people or more  are banned, reports the Samoa Observer.

5.00pm: Air NZ flights slashed

Air New Zealand has cut its international capacity and total flights have fallen from 3600 a week to below 1500 following Covid-19 border measures. Its share price closed 34% down today, with trading having been halted for four days until the announcement this morning of government support (see 9.40am).

4.40pm: Gathering rules ramp up in Australia

Across the Tasman, Scott Morrison has just announced that on top of the existing limit of 100 people in an indoor space, in a small space that should be fewer, with four square metres per person. “If you have a meeting room or something like that, that is 100 metres, you can have 25 people in that room,” Morrison said. “You should be distancing yourself from every fellow Australian where possible,” said Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy at a media conference.

4.15pm: US senators in sell-off scandal

A scandal is breaking in US politics over multiple senators selling stocks in companies, after a closed-door briefing on the seriousness of Covid-19. It came to light after ProPublica reported that Head of the Intelligence Committee Richard Burr had dumped between $628,000 and $1.7 million in stock a week before the markets crashed. A steadily increasing number of other senators are being implicated in other such sales. At the time, Burr was talking up the chances of beating Covid-19 and preventing any sort of economic crash.

3.10pm: On The Spinoff today

1.40pm: Victoria University offers ‘free study’

Victoria University is offering free tuition from the start of the second trimester to domestic students “who have been impacted by Covid-19”. That will “include people who have lost their job, been forced home from overseas or find themselves in changed circumstances such as being at home with dependents”, according to an email sent to staff.

“Everyone who takes up this offer will need to meet our academic requirements and will only be able to enrol in courses that are available and have capacity … This offer is not available to current students of the University who are impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, current students are able to apply for hardship support which covers a range of circumstances including those due to Covid-19.”

Universities have been severely impacted by travel restrictions that have seen foreign student numbers plummet.

More details are here.

1.20pm: 11 new cases in NZ

There are 11 new cases of confirmed Covid-19 in New Zealand, bringing the total to 39. “Where public health staff have fully investigated these cases there is a clear link to overseas travel. In several other cases the test results were only confirmed this morning and these are still being followed up fully,” said the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield.

Five are in Auckland, two in Waikato, two in Wellington and one each in Canterbury and the Hawkes Bay. None required hospitalisation and all are self-isolating. All close contacts are being traced. One of the cases announced yesterday, a man in his 60s, is in hospital in Queenstown in stable condition.

Asked about the risk of community transmission, Bloomfield said they were looking “very, very carefully” for any sign of that. “Any hint that we have, like the canary in the mine of community spread, would lead us to think about what other measures we need to put in place.”

Asked if the current testing was wide enough, he said: “I think we are. If we see from the last 24 hours we’ve had 11 positive tests and nearly 1,000 negative tests. All of those would have been people who had symptoms that could be suggestive of Covid-19 and had either a travel history or a close contact of a confirmed or probable case or where the clinician felt it was worth doing. I think we are seeking quite wide testing. And that’s helping assure us that we don’t have community spread yet.”

He confirmed that community assessment clinics would open from this weekend, with five in Auckland, and more around the country thereafter.

Bloomfield urged people to remember that self-isolation and a ban on large gatherings did not mean social isolation. “You’ve heard me shift the language to ‘physical distancing’, rather than ‘social distancing’. It’s important for all of our mental wellbeing to stay connected to people, family, friends and colleagues.”

Bloomfield announced the launch of a new email address for people seeking information from any agency related to Covid-19 and self-isolation. People who are confirmed cases or contacts of confirmed cases will be prioritised. It’s also for reporting breaches of self-isolation and gathering rule.

The address is “We ask people to use this channel judiciously,” said Bloomfield.

Steve Anderson of Foodstuffs also spoke at the press conference, urging people to “shop normal”, and basically chill the hell out. There is no supply problem with supermarket goods, he said.

Across the Tasman, the seventh Covid-19 death has just been announced. An 81-year-old woman in New South Wales has died.

11.45am: Hospitality sector calls for boost in support

Hospitality New Zealand says new rules that prohibit gatherings above 100 people will “severely impact” their businesses. While they understand the need for the measures, “the impact of the new limits could still be forced closure and staff lay-offs for many, as they will not be able to generate enough income to pay staff, rent and other costs.”

In a statement, CEO Helen White said that the government “needs to step up its support to the hospitality and tourism sectors, which collectively bring $40bn per year into the NZ economy and employ more than 400,000 workers nationwide”.

Announcing the measures yesterday, the health minister, David Clark, indicated there would be further relief plans for the hospitality industry.

11.35am: Shortland Street cuts back schedule

TVNZ has announced that Shortland Street will no longer air on Friday nights from March 27 as a response to Covid-19. “This scheduling change allows the cast and crew some buffer room in their delivery of the show to TVNZ,” a spokesperson said. “It also prioritises everyone’s safety and wellbeing.”

The move comes as other film and television productions in New Zealand make changes in response to the virus. Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series and Disney’s Avatar sequels have halted production, while Three’s Dancing With the Stars NZ announced that they will film without a live studio audience.

11.30am: Auckland Council announces closures

Libraries, pools and recreational centres in Auckland, as well as the Maritime Museum and Art Gallery, will close for at least two weeks from today, the mayor, Phil Goff, has announced.

“Our 55 libraries across Auckland receive over 250,000 visits a week, while there are 200,000 visits a week to our swimming pools and leisure centres,” said Goff in a statement.

“The services we are closing are highly used and much loved by our communities but these are not services which have to be maintained to provide the necessities of life … The closure will be for a period of two weeks initially, extended as required depending on the evolving situation with Covid-19 and the advice of government. The facilities will be closed to the public from later today.”

He said independently run, council funded bodies such as the museum and Motat would make their own announcements soon. No jobs were at risk, he said.

“The council is also reviewing its wider network of community facilities, including community centres, community art galleries and venues for hire, to ensure that from Monday 23 March these facilities only support classes, activities, programmes and events that allow for social distancing within government guidelines.”

For more information see here.

10.50am: ‘Teaching Free Week’ at University of Auckland

The University of Auckland has announced teaching will be suspended next week, “to allow staff to focus on completing their plans and preparations for remote teaching in the event of a partial campus closure in response to Covid-19.”

Students are not required to come to campus, though they are welcome to do so. “All student services will remain open and operating on standard hours.”

9.40am: Air NZ package announced

With the borders closed to foreign nationals and international travel around the world reducing to a trickle, the government has announced a rescue package to keep the national carrier afloat. The headline is there will be $900 million in loans made available to Air New Zealand across two years. It also allows for any loan used to be converted to to equity at the government’s request. The crown currently owns 52% of the airline.

As part of the accord, Air NZ undertakes to maintain certain international and domestic routes.

Announcing the measures, the finance minister, Grant Robertson said Air NZ supported the contents, but acknowledged there is likely to be more to come. “I think it’s vitally important we have a national carrier,” he told media. It was impossible to know what awaited, but “clearly we’re going to be in very regular discussion with Air New Zealand from here on.”

Robertson said it was likely the government would seek to charter Air NZ aircraft to bring New Zealanders abroad home, but those would be contracted separately.

9.00am: Reserve bank expands its toolkit

Assistant governor of the reserve bank, Christian Hawkesby, has this morning outlined a range of measures aimed at ensuring our local banking sector and financial system has pressure valves to deal with any shocks it incurs through the Covid-19 crisis. They include longer term collateralised loans for banks, should offshore lending markets become inaccessible for a spell, along with measures aimed at ensuring currency and government bond markets continue to function well.

“The measures we are implementing today provide additional support to domestic financial markets. We will ensure our operations make financial markets operate smoothly,” Mr Hawkesby said. “We are working in tandem with the banks, the wider financial market community, and the government.”

8.25am: Government can’t guarantee all New Zealanders stranded overseas will get home

Foreign affairs minister Winston Peters has said he can’t guarantee the government will be able to help New Zealanders stranded overseas get home. Peters told RNZ’s Morning Report that as travel routes and borders close, the government was working with Air New Zealand and other governments to help people return. He said an announcement would be made later this morning. About 80,000 New Zealanders are overseas, and 20,000 have registered with the Safe Travel website.

Also on Morning Report, health minister David Clark reiterated there was no evidence of community outbreak in New Zealand yet, but said the number of infected people arriving here from overseas in recent days was concerning, hence the border closure. Clark also said there were no plans to make Covid-19 testing available to anyone who wanted it, saying it would still be up to a clinician to decide who was genuinely at risk.

8.15am: Updates from around the world

Italy’s death toll has now risen to 3,405, overtaking that of China where the virus appears largely under control. Following yesterday’s announcement that Wuhan had gone a day without new positive tests for Covid-19, China reported no new domestically transmitted cases for the first time since the outbreak began, only cases in recent arrivals from overseas.

US president Donald Trump announced that an antimalarial drug which has shown some promise in treating Covid-19 would be made available almost immediately. However FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn added that months of research was needed to determine how effective it really is. Meanwhile the White House has proposed a $1tn stimulus, including a cash payment of $1,000 to every adult, and $500 to every child. The virus continues to spread, with more than 10,000 cases in the US – up by 40% in just 24 hours – with two members of Congress having now tested positive for the virus.

7.38am: How the waste management industry is dealing with Covid-19

We’re likely to see a big decrease in the amount of waste produced in New Zealand in the coming months, but the industry is facing a complex situation in responding to Covid-19. Here’s an excerpt from Alex Braae’s report.

While there will be some pain points – such as the recent example of blocked pipes from people flushing wet wipes down the toilet – the overall volume of rubbish is almost certainly going to decrease in the coming weeks. But it’s a complex situation for the industry to manage.

Associate environment minister Eugenie Sage, who is responsible for waste management, said waste production tends to decrease during an economic downturn. “Any short-term increase in medical-related supplies and packaging is likely to be more than balanced out by decreases in waste from other parts of New Zealand’s economy.”

7.34am: Tips if you’re new to working from home

Our developer Katie Te Nahu Owen has been working from home for a decade, and is pleased to welcome a whole new cohort of people to that style of work. Here are some tips that she’s shared about how to make the most of it.

“As tempting as it might be to work from your couch while wearing pyjamas, it’s important to set a routine. Have a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, perhaps go for a walk around the block before starting work (I have to admit I’ve never done that last one – having a one minute commute to your work area is pretty great).

It’s also important to set boundaries – it’s a lot easier to start working earlier or keep working later when you’re working from home. Try to stick to something that resembles your usual working hours.”

7.30am: Updates from The Bulletin this morning

As of midnight last night, the border of New Zealand is closed to those who aren’t permanent residents or citizens, with very limited exceptions. In a speech delivered by PM Jacinda Ardern at 6.05pm last night, and broadcast live during the TV news, the unprecedented step was announced. “I want to acknowledge that at no time in New Zealand’s history has a power like this been 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.”

Those limited exemptions include the partners and children of permanent residents and citizens. There will also be allowances made for key workers in the health sector. A small number of flights will continue, but become less frequent over time. Flights will also continue for goods being brought in, and the PM stressed that there was no danger in supermarkets running out of food – rather, they just needed time to be restocked. The decision was influenced in part by reports that border checks and questioning had not been as “intensive” as she had expected. More information can be found in yesterday’s live updates page.

It will also apply to Pacific nations, in a departure from the earlier policy. That is in part because it is becoming less clear that New Zealand is able to prevent people with the virus from getting to the Pacific. RNZ Pacific reports that the first case has been found in Fiji, prompting the country to place increased restrictions of its own in place. And in an update to the situation with the long wait for test results in Samoa – RNZ Pacific reports that earlier suggestions it will take 10-20 working days were wrong, and should in fact be back within five days at most.

It is important to reiterate that New Zealand residents and citizens overseas will still be able to return home. But warnings are coming thick and fast that the window for such returns will diminish. The NZ Herald reports that warnings against overseas travel have been upgraded to their highest possible level – basically the message is: don’t do it. Deputy PM Winston Peters said he sympathised with those New Zealanders still overseas, as they weren’t at fault for being stuck outside the country. As Radio NZ reports, plenty are struggling to find a way back.

But Peters said those who decided to travel overseas from now were being “selfish”. The reason for this is that all 28 cases (eight new cases were declared yesterday) are connected to international travel, so those who go overseas are increasing the risk of exposure for everyone else. It probably goes without saying that all those arriving will still have to isolate themselves for 14 days.

The will be major implications for migrant workers with the border closed. According to this Business Desk (paywalled) story, those already in the country will be likely to be allowed to stay, as they’ll be considered essential workers. It hasn’t been too much of a problem yet for the current Kiwifruit season, as the Gisborne Herald reports, with the harvest already underway across much of the region. But as Newshub reports, the need for key seasonal workers will continue – it’ll just change depending on the season.

Some of the commentary around this so far about swapping in workers who have recently been made redundant has probably been a bit simplistic – many of these jobs will be in rural areas, while many of the likely job losses will be in cities, to give just one of many reasons why it might not work out easily. A lot of support for those workers will be needed to make it happen. But there’s little doubt food production is going to be the major export that keeps the country going economically in the coming months. As Stuff’s Luke Malpass writes, closing the border means an enormous hit is coming for the economy.

New rules have also been released for public events.From now on, there can be no more indoor gatherings involving more than 100 people. Work is currently underway to give guidance to the hospitality industry about what it will mean for them, reports Radio NZ. The measures are designed to prevent any outbreak spreading further, and to reiterate, there is still no evidence of community transmission. But the overall message is this: if you’re in doubt about an event, right now the best course of action is to cancel it.
More ventilators are needed in ICUs across the country, but efforts are in motion to make that happen. Newsroom’s Nikki Mandow has looked into the concerns that we didn’t have enough, and the progress to get more built – initially it was really slow from the government, and then all of a sudden it was really fast. What’s fascinating about the situation is that it’s looking like NZ based manufacturers could be rapidly deployed, provided the government steps in and tells them it will cover the bill.
Keep going!