PoliticsSeptember 20, 2020

Election Live, September 20: Four new Covid cases, two local; National admits ‘regrettable’ $4bn error


Welcome to The Spinoff’s Election Live for September 20, bringing you the latest on election 2020 and other NZ news. The essential campaign dates are here. For all you need to know about the cannabis referendum click here. For the assisted dying referendum click here. Explore the parties’ pledges at Policy

6.00pm: The day in sum

There were four new cases of Covid-19 revealed. Two were in the community, but not linked to the “Auckland August cluster”. They are household contacts of a man who recently tested negative twice while in mandatory isolation.

The news came on the eve of a cabinet decision on alert levels, set to be announced at 1pm.

National launched its campaign, virtually, with an event in the Hutt Valley and around the country.

Paul Goldsmith admitted an error in National’s economic plan had overstated the savings from halting Super Fund payments, saying it was “regrettable and irritating”.

That came after Grant Robertson revealed the error, calling it a “basic mistake” to the tune of $4 billion that would never have happened under Key and English.

The Greens announced policy to make at least 30% of New Zealand oceans protected reserves, along with a crackdown on commercial fishing methods.

5.20pm: Scenes from a virtual campaign launch

My favourite bits of the National campaign launch from this afternoon were when they threw to electorates around the country for bursts of cheering and sign waving and sometimes not looking directly at the camera. It reminded me a bit of Top Town, or Telethon; fittingly, because I’m pretty sure the launch was held at the same place the telethons of old used to be filmed, Avalon Studios, which was once the studio jewel in the TVNZ crown.

Anyway, here’s a taste:

4.05pm: Judith Collins, from the virtual floor

Our political editor, Justin Giovannetti, was at Avalon Studios for the National campaign launch his afternoon, where he was one of the 100 socially distanced crowd. We’ll have a full account from him before long, but in the meantime here’s a quick dispatch:

In her speech, Judith Collins tried to draw a distinction between the two main parties. The biggest difference, she said, was that National respects your money while Labour wants to spend it. She reached out to a hypothetical New Zealander who loses their job next year and regrets not voting two ticks blue.

She made the case that an economic project combining tax cuts and infrastructure spending would be the best for a quick recovery from Covid-19.

There was no policy announcement on offer, and the best line of the day belonged to health spokesperson Shane Reti, who earlier described Labour response to the virus as “lackluster and late”. The overarching message, however, was of competent economic management, which was overshadowed bleakly by the big political headline of the day: her finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith fessing up to a four-billion-dollar mistake in the party’s fiscal accounting.

3.50pm: Kicking off on the West Coast

The Spinoff’s very own battle bus, with Alex Braae on board, has pulled up at Punakaiki on the West Coast this afternoon. Alex will have a full report tomorrow, but here’s a taste from his Twitter feed:

3.40pm: Three Kings School student who tested positive not at school while infectious

Auckland Regional Public Health Service has announced that one of the new cases of Covid-19 is a student at Three Kings School in Mt Roskill, but they did not attend school while infectious. It advises that that the risk to any other students or staff is “very low, and the school remains open and safe to attend”.

A spokesperson said it was “very unlikely there was any exposure to the virus at the school. Students and staff do not need to stay at home or get tested, unless they have any symptoms. There is only one close contact in the school community, someone who was not exposed at school. They are currently in self-isolation.”

ARPHS confirmed the cases was one of those announced today, a household contact of the individual who tested positive after completing isolation in Christchurch having returned two negative tests.

2.35pm: How concerning are the new Covid community cases?

Just as the “Auckland August cluster” appears to have been stamped into oblivion, New Zealand now is faced with three new cases in the community, also in Auckland but unconnected with that cluster. As detailed earlier (see 2.00pm), the earliest known source of this group of three is a man who arrived in Christchurch from India on August 27. He returned two negative tests in hotel isolation in Christchurch then returned to his home in Auckland on September 11. Genome sequencing appears to match two confirmed cases from the same flight from India.

One explanation is atypically long incubation: 21 days would be right out there as far as global evidence goes, but not impossible. The other scenario, according to officials, is that “the case may have been infected during the flight from Christchurch to Auckland”. It is unclear whether or not that was a commercial flight.

The mystery aside, the critical question is with whom he might have come into contact in the five days from September 11 through to September 16. According to the ministry all passengers from the domestic flight “are currently being contacted and assessed as a precautionary measure in order to exclude them as the source of infection”, while “all identified close contacts have been isolated and tested”.

But still, five days is quite a stretch, so we’ll no doubt be finding out soon where else the man with the misfortune to have tested positive had been in those five days.

2.05pm: National launch under way

The National Party campaign launch has begun, with departing MP and former broadcaster Maggie Barry chairing it from Avalon Studios in the Hutt. They’re currently checking in with campaign teams around the country. You can watch it here.

2.00pm: Four new Covid cases – two in community, doubts over source

There are four new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand to report. Two are recent returnees detected in managed isolation and the other two are linked to the case reported yesterday. Concerningly, the source of that case, which is not linked to the August cluster, remains uncertain.

The case reported yesterday is, however, a recent returnee. He arrived in New Zealand from India on August 27 and completed managed isolation, returning two negative tests at the facility in Christchurch before returning home to Auckland on September 11, according to the release just in from the Ministry of Health.

So how to explain it? The ministry’s epidemiologists suggest it could be an abnormally long incubation period or he might have picked it up on a domestic flight.

Here’s the detail from the release: “The case reported yesterday was tested after developing symptoms on September 16, and returned a positive result. He and his household contacts self-isolated when he developed symptoms. They were all moved into the Auckland quarantine facility on September 18, when the first case returned a positive result. All identified close contacts have been isolated and tested.

“The source of the case’s infection is still under investigation, but genome sequencing is consistent with two confirmed cases from the same flight from India to New Zealand that landed on August 27.

“It is possible that this case was infected during that flight and has had an extremely long incubation period – there is evidence that in rare instances the incubation period can be up to 24 days. This person developed symptoms 21 days after he arrived in New Zealand.  If this is the case, it sits well outside the standard incubation period of the virus.

“Another possible scenario is that the case may have been infected during the flight from Christchurch to Auckland – other passengers from that flight are currently being contacted and assessed as a precautionary measure in order to exclude them as the source of infection.”

The case is “another example of the tricky nature of the virus, and a reminder that anyone who has been through a managed isolation facility should remain very aware of their health”, said the ministry.

And what of the 14-day period? “Having returnees stay in managed isolation for 14 days remains the gold standard, and this is also the approach adopted by other countries. Our own modelling confirms that 14 days spent in managed isolation with two tests leaves a very low risk that someone will leave managed isolation with Covid-19.”

As for the imported cases, one is a man in his 30s who arrived from London via Dubai on September 16. He tested positive at routine testing around day three of his stay in managed isolation at the Novotel Ellerslie.

The other is a man in his 20s who arrived from India via Singapore on September 12. He returned a negative test around day three at the Grand Millennium but was moved to the Auckland quarantine facility as a close contact of a confirmed case, and has since returned a positive result.

Three people are in hospital with Covid-19 – one each at Auckland City, Middlemore and North Shore hospitals. All are in isolation on a general ward.

The total number of active cases now stands at 71, with 36 imported cases and 35 community cases.

Yesterday 5,417 tests were processed.

1.50pm: ‘Regrettable and irritating’ – Goldsmith apologises for error

With Judith Collins preparing to speak at the National Party campaign launch, we’re still waiting on that Ministry of Health update. Paul Goldsmith is speaking to media outside Avalon studios about the error in their accounting. He says the error was “regrettable and irritating … I own it.” He’s apologised to Judith Collins and now they will “move on”, he says.

1.30pm: ‘Fair cop’: National admits error

Paul Goldsmith has admitted National erred in its calculation of savings from halting Super payments to the tune of $4bn. Stuff reports him saying: “What we didn’t realise was that Labour slipped in a reduction in their own contributions to the NZ Super Fund.” They’d make up the shortfall by drawing down more debt. “So instead of getting to 35% of debt to GDP, we end up at 36%, which is a lot lower than their 48%, but fair cop.”

Super Fund contributions are in fact predicated on a Treasury model.

Earlier (see 11.15am) Labour accused National of a “basic mistake” in miscalculating the saving. Grant Robertson said: “If National can’t even do the basics required on their own policy costings, they cannot be trusted to run the country. Making mistakes like this has real world consequences New Zealand does not need in this challenging time in our history.”

We’re still waiting on those Covid numbers, by the way.

12.15pm: Today’s Covid numbers expected soon

There is no planned press conference today, and we expect to receive the latest case numbers and other information from the Ministry of Health via press release at 1pm. We’ll have full details here as soon as they arrive. An important focus of interest is the one new community case reported yesterday. As of yesterday afternoon the ministry had not identified a source for the case, so we’ll be looking for an update on that. That single case followed four consecutive days of zero locally transmitted cases.

11.45pm: New cases in Victoria down to 14

Some cheering news from across the Tasman: the state of Victoria, which has been stuck in a long, second lockdown after a big second wave of Covid-19, has today recorded just 14 new cases, the lowest in more than three months and the 10th consecutive day under 50.

There were, however, five further deaths, bringing the total number of people who have died with Covid-19 in Victoria to 745. In the last three months more than 18,000 people have tested positive in the state.

11.15am: Labour accuses National of $4 billion ‘basic mistake’

Remember the “$11.7 billion fiscal hole” scrap that sucked up so much energy in the last campaign? Then, Steven Joyce was hurling fiscal shade (which most economists dismissed) at his pretender, Grant Robertson. Today, it’s Robertson arguing that Paul Goldsmith has failed to crunch the numbers correctly.

In a thundering press release, Robertson says “a basic error has left a $4 billion gap in National’s economic plan”. The error, he says, is in overstating the savings from halting contributions to the Super Fund.

“National claimed in its plan that cancelling Super Fund contributions for the next decade would give it $19.1 billion. The Prefu contains just under $15 billion of contributions over that time. National has used the wrong numbers,” Robertson says. “The mistake means they have $4 billion less of so called ‘savings’ to pay for their ill thought-through plan.”

He continues: “Not only is National’s proposal irresponsible when New Zealand needs stability and certainty, they are showing they lack the experience to run the economy. There is no John Key or Bill English there any more. No one who knows how to run a Budget would have made a basic mistake like this.”

Earlier this morning, on Q+A, Goldsmith dismissed questions around the numbers as “misinformation”. We’ll include the National riposte as soon as it arrives, and we’re now seeking some independent economic wonk analysis.

11.00am: Greens pledge crackdown on commercial fishing methods

A crackdown on fishing methods and a boost in marine sanctuaries have been promised by the Greens in marine policy just announced. The party wants at least 30% of New Zealand oceans by 2030 to be fall into marine protection areas and a ban on commercial fishing practices such as dredging and bottom trawling on seamounts in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. They would also seek to “accelerate the implementation of cameras on boats”, introduce a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining, review current quotas and invest $50 million “to help fishers transition to more sustainable fishing methods”.

The policy, announced at Ōrākei in Auckland, was trailed by the Greens as one of its “six flagship announcements this election”.

10.00am: Finance rivals go head to head

Or back to back, might be a better way to put it. First on TVNZ1’s Q+A this morning was Paul Goldsmith, finance spokesperson for the National Party. The volte-face on tax, which saw a short-term tax cut focused on middle-income earners announced on Friday after earlier pledges to the contrary, had been prompted by the return to lockdown last month, said Goldsmith, and the “impact it had on business confidence”. Goldsmith was effective in arguing that the difference between Labour and his party was whether the state or the individual should be trusted with spending economic stimulus. He struggled, however, when Jack Tame pointed out that the lowest income earners are considerably likelier to spend a tax cut than those on middle incomes – and the tax cut windfall would go to those middle earners.

The finance incumbent, Grant Robertson, followed. He repeated his assessment of the new National policy as “desperate” and “reckless”, insisting that National’s rejigged promises created a “Bermuda triangle of fiscal policy”. The best Robertson could offer in response to the challenge that house prices were predicted to continue to soar amid a bleak economy was that it was a long-term challenge and that there remained “huge fluctuation and uncertainty”.

For more on that area, and the other missing bits in the debate following last week’s opening of the books, I recommend to you Justin Giovannetti’s analysis here.

Meanwhile both Goldsmith and Robertson are to be commended for correctly naming the Q+A host.

7.30am: National Party to launch campaign, five weeks on

Judith Collins and the National Party were blowing the balloons and lacing the bunting for a big campaign launch when Covid-19 sneaked back into the country and ruined everything. The planned event, before a big crowd at the Vodafone Events Centre in Manukau, got scratched, and in its place today, five weeks on, the party is holding a “virtual campaign launch” at the once-palatial Avalon Studios in the Hutt Valley.

Recent days have seen a bit of air open up between the two main parties, with National pulling a handbrake turn on tax on Friday and Labour yesterday pledging a boost in the minimum wage and a doubling of minimum sick leave. Today begins a critical few days for Collins, especially. Strong performances today and at the first leaders’ debate on Tuesday evening could spark a largely luckluster campaign into life.

Our political editor, Justin Giovannetti, will be at this afternoon’s launch, with the main event expected around 2pm. Stay tuned.

Elsewhere, Green leaders Marama Davidson and James Shaw are in Auckland to make a policy announcement late morning, followed by a series of street corner meetings.

Act leader David Seymour is taking his road trip to the bright lights of Balclutha, Gore and Invercargill.

NZ First leader Winston Peters is somewhere between the Coromandel and Northland, perhaps stuck in a harbour bridge queue.

I’m not sure what Labour leader Jacinda Ardernis up to. Let me know if you see her.

In case you missed it, here’s the latest episode of Gone By Lunchtime:

Download now, subscribe through Apple Podcasts, or visit Gone By Lunchtime on Acast or Spotify.

7.00am: Yesterday’s headlines

There were two new Covid-19 cases, one a community case with its source under investigation.

Contact tracing concerns were raised over the buses that replaced some Auckland train services on Thursday.

The Electoral Commission released the final candidate numbers and the latest on enrolments.

Labour pledged to double workers’ sick leave entitlement from five days to 10 and raise the minimum wage to $20.

The first Auckland Central electorate poll showed Labour’s Helen White way out in front.

Keep going!