Covid-19 NZ live updates, March 21: NZ at level two after suspected community spread; Te Papa’s virus scare

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.

7.30pm: The four alert levels

Here’s a useful, easily legible breakdown of the four alert levels that were announced earlier today (see 12.15pm; click here for a PDF). We’re at level two now. Remember, it’s not just about your health, but about your ability to affect the health of others around you, and the health of those who are around those who are around you, and so on. Read up, don’t be a dick, catch you tomorrow.

6.30pm: Councils shut venues across the country; Warriors still no good in empty stadium

Councils the length of the country have reacted to today’s debut of a four tier system for Covid-19, with our current status at level two, with mass closures of venues. Affected cities included Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Lower Hutt and Porirua.

Another major institution, Te Papa, is grappling with news that passengers on the Ruby Princess, an Australian cruise liner which has had multiple passengers test positive, visited the museum on March 14. The advice from Ministry of Health is that there is no reason to consider self-isolation unless you were within one metre of someone for 15 minutes or more.

Meanwhile, in one of the few games of professional sport still happening, the NZ Warriors are currently trailing 0-16 to the Canberra Raiders, looking like the NRL season can’t be abandoned soon enough.

4pm: Guidelines for hospitality industry released

The Government and the hospitality industry produced guidelines to assist with managing and reducing transmission of Covid-19. The guidelines developed between government, Hospitality New Zealand and SkyCity, set out how the new restrictions on physical distancing and the limit of 100 people in an indoor space will work in bars and restaurants and other venues.

Key components include:

  • Implementing a COVID-19 guest register of everyone in a venue
  • Undertaking regular head counts of people in a venue
  • Configuring electronic gaming machines to allow appropriate physical distancing
  • Limiting table games at a casino to 5 persons per table

“These measures are important to protect the health of New Zealanders, which is our number one priority,” Health Minister David Clark said. “They will change the way we attend bars and restaurants and have an impact on the way people go about living their lives, but we have to apply common sense in these circumstances.”

3.20pm: Covid-19 crisis showing the power of legacy media over social media

The Spinoff’s managing editor assesses a TVNZ special featuring Jacinda Ardern and Siouxsie Wiles, characterised by crisp, clear communication and contrasting markedly with social media.

“The whole special was very well-executed, a tight 30 minute package that combined clear and useful information with up-to-the-minute news. It was naturally and inevitably a very different kind of product, feeling at times like the state commandeering its TV channel to speak near-directly to the public. But, crucially, it did not feel propagandistic or political. And while some commentators have suggested TVNZ1 should have already converted to ad-free 24 hour Covid-19 coverage, even the fact of that would likely incite more panic, rather than the staged response the moment requires.”

2.35pm: Te Whānau-ā-Apanui declare rāhui banning outsiders for two months

Eastern Bay of Plenty iwi Te Whānau-ā-Apanui has declared a rāhui to prevent the spread of Covid-19 within its boundaries. In a statement on Facebook, leader Rawiri Waititi said “in light of the pandemic Covid-19 plaguing the country and the world we have had to take proactive measures to protect our most vulnerable, our iwi and our elderly.”

The NZ Herald reported Waititi as saying “no one is allowed in our iwi boarders until the rāhui has been lifted. What we want is to mitigate the spread of the virus within the iwi.” He cited the poor healthcare available in the area, and the vulnerability of the 200 residents aged over 65. The rāhui will be enforced by teams of 5-6 iwi members, and does not impact deliveries.

2.15pm: Sky CEO reveals details of planned all-NZ rugby comp

In a story published on the Herald before today’s announcement, Sky CEO Martin Stewart implied that discussions were relatively well-advanced to create a replacement for the postponed Super Rugby season. “It’s going to be a local New Zealand team-based competition,” he told Jim Kayes, who works for both NZME and Sky. “There are a couple of alternatives that will depend on how things develop in terms of travel bans etc. as to whether or not there is an overseas element towards the end, or whether it remains purely a New Zealand-based competition. But either way, we’re hopeful that working closely with New Zealand rugby, we’ll be able to see some great action between all of the Super teams in New Zealand.”

Events might have overtaken the plans, with the competition seemingly fitting the description of unnecessary travel and innately breaking physical distancing requirements.

1.25pm: Confirmed cases drop to 52

We’ll take every speck of good news at this point: the Ministry of Health has just announced there are 13 new cases not 14, owing to a double count of an existing case in Taranaki. So the total number is now 52.


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


1pm: Ardern and Bloomfield speak

The prime minister and the director general of health have appeared together at the Beehive theatrette to take questions.

At level two, people are encouraged not to gather together, but, “We are asking people to take responsibility for their own decision making here … but please keep in mind the more contact you have with others, the greater the risk.”

People were urged to ask themselves whether plans to travel were essential. “If you do need to travel, keep your physical distance at all times.”

She added: “We do need to be prepared that regions or the country could move to level three.”

Could that come in the case of just one confirmed community transmission? Ashley Bloomfield responded: “If, for example, we have a person who has done a lot of travel around the country and we can’t identify exactly where that community transmission occurred, then we may look at the whole country, but generally speaking we would be looking first of all at that local community.”

Ardern: “Everything we’ve done so far we’ve been willing to move on risk. We’ve been willing to move early to pre-empt potential growth in cases and waves, and we will continue to do that as we apply this alert system.”

What about school closures? “In alert level two, if there is a case attached to a school, the school will close. There will be contact tracing, 72 hours of thorough cleaning, and then the school will reopen. If we have wider community outbreak, that guidance may change … Breaking schools up now may not, however, reduce community transmission.”

Do the over-70s guidelines apply to Winston Peters, who turns 75 next month? “He is an essential part of our team and a core part of our government, so the deputy prime minister will be continuing in his role as business as usual while applying the same measures we are asking all parliamentarians to maintain at this time.”

Ardern emphasised the message on panic buying: “I cannot reiterate this clearly or firmly enough. We will continue to have food supply in New Zealand. The reason we have empty shelves is because supermarkets are unable to restock quickly enough. When people panic buy it doesn’t give time for restocking of shelves. It also potentially deprives someone who is desperately getting one thing on their list that may be critical to them. To use an example: there will be families who need formula … Even if we are in level four, supermarkets will be open. I say the same for pharmacies.”

When it was put to Ardern that there were public health experts saying New Zealand should have moved to level four already (see 12.55pm), she responded: “And there are public health experts who say we should be doing exactly what we are doing.”

Bloomfield said he believed that level two was the right assessment for now. “We believe that’s the right place to be. It’s under very constant review. I’m talking very regularly with a range of health advisers, my own chief science adviser and the prime minister’s chief science adviser, too.”

Ardern: “One thing we should remember is that this will be with us for some time. So we have to be sure that when we move, we are unable to sustain our response. This will not leave in weeks. It will be here for some time.”

12.55pm: ‘Too conservative’ – Michael Baker

Ardern has in recent minutes said New Zealand is “willing to move early”, but speaking on RNZ, Michael Baker, professor of public health at Otago University, says more is needed.

The new measures were welcome, “but unfortunately we’re still underestimating this virus, this pandemic, as every country on Earth has done, with the exception of some Asian countries who have been through SARS, who know what is involved,” he said.

“None of us has experienced this before… The word ‘proportionate’ keeps coming up. But we are against a threat here we have never encountered before… I think now is the time for absolutely maximal measures. I would say it’s time for Level 3, possibly Level 4 is what we need to do at the moment… I think we’re being far too conservative.”

12.25pm: Siouxsie Wiles on new measures

Speaking on RNZ, Siouxsie Wiles has welcomed the new alert levels. “This is exactly what New Zealand needs. This now gives us a really clear idea of what to do at different stages. So at alert Level 2 … we shouldn’t be going out to bars or restaurants with friends, we should be sticking with our household units and limiting basically contact with others.”

She added: “We want those who are vulnerable to be limiting their contact with others as much as possible, outside of their household. We need everybody else who is able to limit their contact to do that. We have to think of ourselves as little links in a chain, and think of that chain as being a chain that Covid-19 can pass through. Every one of us that limits our interactions with other people is a chance where we can break one of these transmission chains, and stop lots of other people contracting this virus.”

12.15pm: New alert system

Jacinda Ardern has announced a new alert system for Covid-19 with four levels. Sometimes they will apply nationwide; at others to certain towns or cities. At all levels, essential services such as supermarkets and pharmacies will remain available. The levels are:

1. Where Covid-19 is here but contained.
A preparation phase. Measures include border measures, contact tracing, limits on mass gatherings.

2. Where the disease is contained but risks are growing.
Move to reduce contact. Measures include further border measures. Cancel events. Ask people to work remotely where possible and cancel travel.

3. Where the disease is increasingly difficult to contain.
Step things up again. Close public venues. Ask non-essential businesses to close.

4. Where we have sustained transmission.
Eliminate contact altogether. Maintain essential services but ask everyone to stay at home until Covid-19 is under control.

New Zealand is currently at Level 2. Ardern said that further measures were required within Level 2.

“People over 70 years of age, or people who are immunocompromised or have certain pre-existing conditions, need to stay at home as much as they can from now on.”

This will effect hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders.

“I’m asking everyone to support our older New Zealanders by doing things like keeping in contact with them and dropping off food or other supplies,” said Ardern.

“I am also asking businesses and workplaces to play their part. Many workplaces already have plans for staff to work from home or to distance themselves in the workplace. We are now asking you to put those plans in place.

“Health and emergency professionals, transport and delivery staff, supermarket and food production workers, and other essential people will be continuing on at their place of work at this alert level.

“It’s also important to note that at every alert level supermarkets around New Zealand will remain open.

“We are also asking New Zealanders to limit all non-essential domestic travel. We need people to significantly reduce the number of interactions they have at this time and that includes visiting people in different parts of the country for non-essential reasons.

“These measures are being taken in the national interest. We know people, business, and sports events will be impacted, but these are short-term disruptions for the overall health of our people and country.

“I know many New Zealanders are anxious. The alert system is designed to offer certainty around future action and the ability for people to plan and prepare for any future eventuality. Please be strong, be kind, and unite against Covid-19,” said Ardern.

Ardern began her address by saying: “New Zealand is fighting an unprecedented global pandemic. We must fight by going hard and going early with new measures to slow the transmission of the virus …

“The international situation is changing rapidly and we need to clearly sign-post the changes New Zealanders will be asked to make as we step up our efforts to limit the spread of the virus. The alert system means people can see and plan for the kinds of restrictions we may be required to put in place, which may be required rapidly.”

She ended with an appeal to New Zealanders to “do what we do so well”: “We may not have experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. But we know how to rally, and we know how to look after one another. And right now, what could be more important than that. Thank you for everything you are about to do. Please be strong and be kind and unite against Covid-19.”

Read the speech in full here.

11.20am: 14 new cases, 2 possibly community spread

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield has this morning announced 14 new cases of Covid-19, four in Wellington, one in Taranaki, three in Auckland, one in Waikato, one in Taupo, one in Manawatū, two in Nelson. This brings the running total to 53, with four more likely.

Most are travel related, but crucially two cases have occurred without a known link to overseas travel, and at this point “we cannot rule out a risk of community transmission in these cases.” Bloomfield said one case was in the Auckland region, and one in the Wairarapa.

Asked about the risk of undetected community transmission, given the testing has focused on people with overseas links, Bloomfield said: “What I can say is testing has ramped up, as practitioners have identified people who need testing. Right from early on we were testing the people we felt needed testing, based on overseas travel link. As more people have come into the country who have been overseas, more testing has happened.

“Yesterday we did 500 tests, the day before 1,000 tests. So there is a large number of tests being done. That will help us have an early signal whether there is community transmission in one or more locations. So I think the volume of testing now is good. Just for comparison, South Korea’s capacity was about 10,000 tests per day, with a population about 10 times the size of ours. So I think our testing capacity is good. What we want to do is make sure is that we are doing the number of tests that need to be done.”

On the Wairarapa case, he said: “We can’t rule out that there was community transmission, but what we’re interested to find out is whether that community transmission happened there or somewhere else in the country. And also understand, of course, whether there’s any further risk of community transmission in the country.”

Three of the confirmed cases are in hospital. A man in his 60s is in Lakes District Hospital in Queenstown, a woman is in hospital in Nelson and another in North Shore Hospital. All three are stable.

The Ruby Princess, which left New Zealand five days ago, has had three Australian passengers and one crew member test positive. The 56 New Zealanders who were on board the cruise ship, including 28 who have returned to New Zealand, are being considered close contacts and being followed up by health officials. Details of the movement of that ship and the Celebrity Solstice, which had a confirmed Covid-19 case of a New Zealander on board, are here.

Bloomfield concluded the briefing with a note of thanks to his staff. “Today is the 62nd day since we stood up our National Health Coordination Centre … I just want to acknowledge the dozens and now hundreds of people who have been working behind the scenes … working very long hours and very hard for the public. I want to acknowledge them and say ngā mihi nui kia koutou.”

10.25am: announcements coming soon

A busy few hours await. At 11am, Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health, gives his daily briefing. At noon, Jacinda Ardern gives an update from her office. That will be followed by a press conference with both the PM and Bloomfield. Check back for rolling updates here.

Education minister Chris Hipkins has warned that if community transmission is confirmed, then closing schools in the area is just one measure that could be taken to prevent it getting out of the area. He told Newshub Nation PM Jacinda Ardern will be making more detailed announcements on the matter, saying that will come “very very soon.”

9.10am: NZ-Singapore keep key trade corridor open

In a joint statement, the trade ministers for Singapore and New Zealand have committed to keeping our trade and supply links open, and removing existing tariffs which might impede them.

“This is an important collective response, and will help ensure New Zealand and Singapore can access the important goods and medical supplies we need in this time of global crisis,” Trade Minister David Parker said. He and his Singaporean counterpart Chan Chun Sing said the two countries “affirm the importance of refraining from the imposition of export controls or tariffs and non-tariff barriers, and to remove any existing trade restrictive measures on essential goods, especially medical supplies.”

8.30am: on The Spinoff today

7.30am: NZ supermarkets unite to try and get us to chill

Visit the NZ Herald homepage right now and you’ll see a bank of supermarket logos, from giants like Countdown, to more regional operators like Raeward Fresh, unified in trying to get New Zealand to calm down. The ad links to a message on Foodstuffs, operators of New World, Pak n Save and Four Square, imploring customers to “shop like you normally would”, “shop in store” (as opposed to online, which appears beyond capacity in places) and to “look out for each other”.

NZ Supermarkets unite

The aim is to prevent the kind of violence, shelf-stripping and chaos we’ve seen overseas.

The need to maintain pristine hygiene has led to two decisions unthinkable outside the crisis, with Auckland Transport announcing the end of cash fares from next week, while the Police suspend drink-driving checkpoints over Covid-19 fears. To be clear, that is not a licence to drive drunk, simply a recognition that the devices used for mass testing present potential transmission issues. Drivers suspected of being under the influence of alcohol will be pulled over, and asked to blow into a disposable tube.

The arts sector has felt an immediate impact through border closures, mass event cancellations, gathering restrictions and physical distancing, a reality which has been recognised with an arts sector package announced late last night. Creative New Zealand has established a multi-million-dollar emergency response package to support artists, arts practitioners, arts groups and arts organisations coping with the impact of COVID-19. $4.5m will be initially invested, across two strands.

  • Emergency support for existing investment clients – open to the 83 multi-year funded arts organisations in their investment programmes such as Tōtara and Kahikatea.
  • Resilience grants for artists, arts practitioners, arts groups and arts organisation – open to eligible, non-investment clients. There will be quick turnaround periods and rolling weekly decisions.

7am: China and Japan appear in control

The centre of the outbreak has definitively shifted west this week, with China having had a record day for imported Covid-19, while retaining zero local transmissions for a second straight day. It will keep its ban on inbound and outbound travel, while speeding up the end of quarantine and the return to work for those in areas considered low-risk. The Guardian covers a convivial scene at bar in Shanghai, a situation unimaginable until very recently. Close neighbour Japan is similarly on the rebound, reportedly considering when to end its school closures.

The rest of the world is far from such a moment. A number of grim milestone figures were reached: there are now over 250,000 confirmed cases, and fatalities surpassed 10,000 globally, with Italy again recording a new high – 627 deaths, taking its total beyond 4,000. Spain continues to be hit hard, with its death toll surpassing 1,000. The UK has ordered all bars, restaurants, cafes and theatres closed from tonight, with the government pledging to pay up to 80% of the salary of workers kept on during the closures. California has ordered its residents to ‘shelter-in-place’, New York has banned all gatherings of any size for any reason, and two Republican senators face mounting calls for their resignation, after it was revealed they sold millions of dollars in shares following a confidential briefing on the virus in late January.

Elsewhere, Jordan and Tunisia have become the latest nations to implement lockdown, while Australia is looking at a suburb-by-suburb lockdown should its outbreak escalate, and is delaying its budget from May until October to focus on the pandemic. In a marker of the new behavioural reality of social distancing, EU’s industry commissioner Thierry Breton has asked YouTube and Netflix to reduce streaming quality to allow the internet to continue to function, with both companies complying.

For more from around New Zealand, catch up on yesterday’s live updates, and check back in by 8am for a morning briefing.


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