Live updates, June 24: NSW travel pause extended; Wellington councillors vote on spatial plan

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for June 24, bringing you the latest news updated throughout the day. Get in touch at stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

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7.45pm: Expanded protections in revised spatial plan rejected

As a long, long session on the controversial spatial plan continues into the night, Wellington councillors have just voted 9-6 to reduce the size of the character area protections back to the August 2020 level.

Justin Giovannetti reports from the room: 

After dozens of amendments (and counting), Wellington City Council has made numerous changes to the city’s spatial plan where they’ve allowed more density in some areas and shrunk it in others.

Along with the decision to bring back height restrictions in the central city, council voted to shrink the size of heritage precincts in the inner suburbs from 127 hectares to about 88 hectares. Council then voted to increase the size of areas near suburban transit hubs where denser development will be allowed.

They also expanded the size of the area near the CBD, a walking catchment, where more density is allowed, from the earlier proposal of a 10 minute walk to a 15 minute walk.

7.20pm: NSW travel pause extended by 12 days

The pause on quarantine free travel from New South Wales to New Zealand has been extended by 12 days. The decision follows the increase in the confirmed community Covid-19 cases in the state, Australia’s most populous, to 36.

“The government strongly believes a cautious approach is the best course of action while these investigations continue,” advises a statement from the office of Covid response minister Chris Hipkins. “New Zealand public health staff remain in close contact with New South Wales authorities about the actions being taken in Sydney, and will review the decision to continue the pause late next week.”

The state has introduced measures in response, but has not been put into lockdown.

“Anyone who was at a location of interest at the specified times cannot travel to New Zealand within 14 days of the exposure event. This applies to all travellers, no matter what Australian State or Territory they are departing from. Passengers will be asked on departure from Australia by their airline and on arrival in New Zealand by Customs at the eGate if they have been at a location of interest.”

Wellington remains in alert level two, a measure triggered by the positive Covid test of a Sydney man who spent last weekend in Wellington. There have been no positive tests in Wellington so far, with all eyes on results tomorrow from thousands of tests undertaken today.

5.20pm: Height limits for Wellington’s central city voted in as spatial plan debate drags on

More from Justin Giovannetti as Wellington Council debates the spatial plan:

Motions to put height limits back on the central city and to add new protected areas were initially narrowly defeated 8-7, but council then revoted after Iona Pannett said she had voted wrong. Council has now voted in favour of an amendment putting height limits back on the central city. So the spatial plan’s call for unlimited heights in the CBD is now gone.

Council had planned on finishing the debate by 5pm. One councillor has joked that midnight now seems more likely.

4.10pm: The debate on the spatial plan has started and it isn’t pretty

Justin Giovannetti writes:

Wellington’s mayor is going to vote on amendments to the city’s spatial plan to lower height restrictions across the city and look to protect more areas in Mount Victoria, Thorndon, Kelburn, Mount Cook, Aro Valley, the Terrace and Newtown from development.

He said he doesn’t want the city to “sacrifice” its character on the way to growth. He said the areas deserve to be protected. “They value them, they want to protect these parts of the city and we should respect that. They aren’t all mouldy old dungers,” said Andy Foster.

Councillor Tamatha Paul is having absolutely none of it. “People are scrapping over this disgusting, feral housing stock and you want to protect more of it. That just blows my mind,” she said. Paul said that some of the houses that could now be protected are being added because councillors nominated them. “This is to me, a list of houses that you think look nice,” she said. “That’s just nuts to me.”

3.40pm: No lockdown for Sydney despite growing Covid cluster

Sydney will not be going into lockdown despite a growing cluster of Covid-19 cases.

There are now 48 active cases of the coronavirus in New South Wales, with 11 recorded overnight. That included one case with no known links to the existing cluster.

As Nine News reports, premier Gladys Berejiklian said the current restrictions in place across Sydney were sufficient. “I do want to stress that my level of concern is medium to high across New South Wales but at the same time, a couple of things that we are pleased about is that all the new cases but one are linked and that one is under investigation,” Berejiklian said.

“We do expect more cases in the coming days but we also please expect everybody to do the right thing.”

2.50pm: Getting to the spatial plan…eventually

Justin Giovannetti writes:

Some of the blazers are coming off and rolled up sleeves are soon to follow, but Wellington council hasn’t gotten to debate on its spatial plan yet. Instead, council has spent most of the afternoon so far debating transforming parking on Thorndon Quay from angled parks to parallel.

The change was recommended by the NZ transport agency to protect cyclists as the route is one of the main ways into the city. Questioning the proposal, a number of councillors have pointed out that there’s only been one serious accident on the stretch in recent years. Council has asked several questions about whether they’d be legally responsible for any deaths from cyclists if they chose not to make the change.

Asked about why the national agency made the proposal for the change despite the lack of cyclist deaths, a representative from the NZTA pointed out that they aim for a higher standard than responding to deaths.

This is the fourth time the proposal has been brought to council in some form. The main sticking point seems to be criticism from local businesses that they’d lose some parking spots in the change.

2.15pm: Extra $4m for Ashburton after severe flooding

Another $4 million is being given to flood-stricken Canterbury farmers roughly a month after wild weather slammed the South Island.

An additional $100,000 will also be provided to the Mayoral Relief Fund to support Canterbury communities.

Jacinda Ardern is in the region today to survey damage and the ongoing recovery from the one in 200 year weather event. “Our Canterbury farmers are dealing with a massive recovery effort following the recent floods and facing significant costs that aren’t covered by insurance,” Ardern said.

“The flooding has caused widespread and significant damage across a number of districts and recovery efforts are ongoing and considerable. It’s clear that extra funding is needed to relieve pressure on farmers who have also been battling drought.”

Ardern said the additional funding would help those impacted by the floods get their farming operations back under way as soon as possible.

1.00pm: No Covid-19 cases after fear of Wellington outbreak

Updated

A surge of testing across the country has seen no new Covid-19 cases recorded in either the community or managed isolation.

Almost 7000 tests were completed nationwide yesterday, with more than 2000 in Wellington, after a confirmed case of Covid-19 spent the weekend in Wellington.

Speaking to media, Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said yesterday was the fourth biggest day in the history of the Healthline service. Hipkins asked those who couldn’t get in for a test today, and had been in a location of interest, to stay home and isolate until they can get a test.

At this stage, the genomic testing for the confirmed case has not yet been completed. This is expected later today, Hipkins said. However, Hipkins added that the partner of the individual is asymptomatic and has tested negative.

People in Wellington are encouraged to wear face masks if they’re in an environment where physical distancing is difficult. Masks remain mandatory on public transport, even at alert level one.

“This is not a lockdown,” said Hipkins. “What we’ve seen over the past 24 hours has been encouraging.”

The number of close and casual contacts is expected to increase, Hipkins said. At this stage, Wellington will only remain in alert level two until Sunday at 11.59pm. Cabinet will meet to review this on Sunday morning.

In additional positive news, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said there are also no cases to report in MIQ facilities. He confirmed the epidemiological link between the Sydney case and the ongoing Bondi cluster.

Today marks five days since the visitor was in Wellington and the test results received today and tomorrow, along with wastewater testing, will give a better picture, said Bloomfield.

“It doesn’t tell us a lot at this point,” said Hipkins, referring to the fact there are no cases yet. “It’s still early days.”

12.55pm: Watch: Bloomfield and Hipkins give update on Wellington’s Covid-19 scare

11.35am: Health expert suggests travel bubble might not be worth the risk

A health expert has questioned whether the travel bubble with Australia is even worth it after a positive case of Covid-19 made it from Sydney to Wellington.

Des Gorman from Auckland University told Newshub that we cannot afford another lockdown. “Contact tracing is not very good. We need to have zero risk tolerance,” he said.

“The question each day is not, ‘is there a reason to close the bubble down?’ The question each day is, ‘are there reasons to keep the bubble open?’ We’ve got our risk appetite back to front.”

Gorman said the Ministry of Health was too slow to inform people about the locations of interest in Wellington yesterday – some of these were not publicised until mid-afternoon. “Yesterday all those people went to work in Wellington who shouldn’t have gone to work, they should have been forewarned the previous evening,” said Gorman. “The argument was ‘there’s a process we have to follow and we have to sort out the risk’ and so on. I don’t accept that. Just put the names out there, and if the next day you have to edit them, so be it.”

The next update from health officials will be at 1pm with Ashley Bloomfield and Chris Hipkins.

11.05am: Covid-19 testing surge in Wellington – here is where you can get one

Just under 7000 people were tested yesterday for Covid-19, with 2100 of those in the Wellington region.

There has been a significant demand for testing since the revelation that a Covid-positive individual visited a number of tourist hotspots and restaurants around Wellington over the weekend.

According to the Ministry of Health, five times as many tests were given out in Wellington yesterday as the day before.

“In the Wellington region, testing priority is being given to individuals who have been at a location of interest at the specified time and individuals who are symptomatic,” a spokesperson for the ministry said. “At this stage, you do not need to be tested if you were not at a location of interest, unless you are symptomatic.”

A number of new testing sites are now open around the region. The full list is:

  • Wellington Central, 196-200 Taranaki Street. Open until 6pm and will reopen at 8am tomorrow.
  • Haitaitai Park, Ruahine Street. Open until 9pm and will reopen at 10am tomorrow.
  • Wellington Regional Hospital, carpark by Te Hopai, off Mein Street. Open 1pm – 6pm and will reopen at 8am tomorrow.
  • Porirua, 178 Bedford Street. Open until 9pm tonight and reopen at 8am tomorrow.
  • Johnsonville, 24 Moorefield Road. Open until 4.30pm and will reopen at 9.30am tomorrow.
  • Upper Hutt, Heretaunga Christian Centre, 51 Lane Street. Open until 4.30pm.
  • Lower Hutt, 729 High Street. Open until 4pm and will reopen at 9am tomorrow.
  • Kapiti, Coastlands Shoppingtown. Open 1pm – 5pm and will reopen at 12.30pm tomorrow.
  • Karori, 11 Parkvale Road. Open 1pm – 5pm and will reopen at 1pm tomorrow.
  • Wairarapa, located at various medical centres. Open standard business hours, and after-hour testing is provided at Masterton Medical Centre, 4 Colombo Road

People are being asked to book in early, the ministry said, and anyone who was at a location of interest should contact Healthline. A 20 minute wait time is being reported by Healthline staff.

10.50am: Groups spar at council over Wellington’s growth plan

Political editor Justin Giovannetti is there to see it:

Wellington council is discussing the city’s future today as a proposed spatial plan to guide growth over the next three decades is up for a vote. Divisions in the city over the plan were clear in a socially-distanced public gallery that jousted over whether it goes too far or not nearly far enough.

A woman representing a citizens group from Mount Victoria chastised council for a lack of leadership and “mocking and vilifying” people who want to protect their homes. She called on them to approve the current plan which protects swaths of the inner suburbs from denser building.

If they voted against the plan and moved more housing to the inner suburbs they would be “sowing hate and nastiness” she said.

Two groups then called on the council to reject the plan because of its lack of ambition. They suggested that the city move more housing to the inner areas and remove restrictions on density. “You have a choice today, that Wellington is open to people or not,” said Yvette Taylor, speaking for a number of groups opposed to the plan for being too restrictive.

“Make a courageous, but to me obvious choice”.

A vote on the plan is expected later today.

(Image / Justin Giovannetti)

10.15am: Wellington spatial plan vote day

It’s spatial plan day in Wellington. Councillors are today voting on a plan that could see 127.3 hectares of the city largely protected from demolition and with construction limited to three storeys.

Our political editor Justin Giovannetti wrote about the plan last week. He’s at council today and will be keeping us up to date with all the goings on.

9.55am: What if it’s the delta variant?

The wait continues in Wellington to learn if the Covid-positive traveller from Sydney had carried the delta variant of the virus. So, what could that mean for the city?

‘Worst case scenario’

Epidemiologist Michael Baker told TVNZ the “worst case scenario” was if the delta variant made it into the Wellington community.

“They spent the whole weekend in indoor venues and literally have contact with thousands of people. So, this can cause huge amounts of transmission of the virus. That’s a big threat,” Baker said. “We need to upgrade our alert level system so it makes mask use much clearer for people when we have an outbreak situation.”

The fastest and fittest

The delta strain was originally known as the “Indian variant” and is now thought to be 90% more infectious than the original form of Covid-19. According to the World Health Organisation, as reported by CNBC, the delta variant is the fastest and fittest of the coronavirus strains. “[It has the potential] to be more lethal because it’s more efficient in the way it transmits between humans and it will eventually find those vulnerable individuals who will become severely ill, have to be hospitalised and potentially die,” said Mike Ryan from the WHO.

We’ve seen it in Sydney

The rapid spread of the delta variant in Australia is scary proof of just how quickly it can spread. CCTV footage from a shopping centre showed fleeting contact between two people who were later confirmed to have Covid-19. “They are clearly facing each other but it is literally someone moving across from each other for a moment – close, but momentary,” said New South Wales’ chief health officer Kerry Chant.

“In two other cases, we haven’t been able to, with CCTV footage, look at the exact same crossover point, but we know they were 20 metres [apart], signing in at different venues at the same time or in that area so we suspect they did cross over.”

9.15am: Hipkins, Bloomfield, to speak at 1pm

Following Wellington’s move into alert level two last night, the director general of health Ashley Bloomfield and Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins will speak again at 1pm this afternoon.

We’re anticipating details of any new cases if they exist, along with the first wave of test results from overnight. Hopefully, we will also get the genomic testing results from the confirmed case which will verify the strain of the virus and link it to the Sydney cluster.

We’ll have a livestream for you before 1pm.

8.00am: Covid-19 testing in the spotlight as Wellington wakes to alert level two

There’s concern Wellington was unprepared for the sudden return of Covid-19, with reports of testing centres overwhelmed and people being turned away. 

As usual, anyone with Covid-19 symptoms or linked to a location of interest has been urged to seek a test – but some are finding that easier said than done. The main community testing centre on Taranaki Street in central Wellington is fully booked up today, and information about new testing centres is yet to be released.

What locations are open so far?

So far, the following new locations have opened for tests:

  • A pop-up testing station has opened at Hataitai Park on Ruahine Street.
  • Testing is available at the Coastlands shopping centre in Paraparaumu (by appointment)
  • In Porirua, the testing station on Bedford Street is open as of now.
  • Two testing sites are open in the Hutt Valley: please call the Hutt Valley testing call centre to be given a location.
  • Ring your GP: you might be able to get a test there quicker.

A full list is available here.

Has the response been too slow?

Speaking to RNZ this morning, National’s Covid-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop said the initial response yesterday morning could have been better. “People have been frustrated at the length of time it took to publish the list of locations of interest,” he said. It took until late into the day yesterday for the full list of locations to be put online, sparking concern workers in Wellington could have unknowingly spread the virus further.

But the Covid response minister Chris Hipkins has pushed back at criticism of “sluggish” action. He told Newstalk ZB all necessary information was released within 12 hours of the new case coming to light.

On why testing centres were slow to open, Hipkins told Newshub it took time to rally staff. “You have obviously got to pull people off their other duties in order to be able to do that. We don’t have people standing around in case we have extra testing capability. There is work to roster people on,” he said.

What news has come in overnight?

  • At this stage, the genomic testing has not been completed so the strain of the virus is unknown. It is presumed to be the more transmissible Delta variant.
  • No new cases have been reported overnight.

7.30am: Top stories from The Bulletin

For the first time ever, Wellington’s Covid restrictions are more stringent than that of the rest of the country. The city moved up to alert level two yesterday, with the rest of the country watching on and remaining at level one. For those needing a reminder of what level two involves, our live updates had a guide. It is by no means a lockdown, but there are still some restrictions on daily life, particularly around events.

There are still no known community cases. However, a significant number of locations of interest have now been added to the list, with instructions for anyone who was there at the same time. The person who came through the trans-Tasman bubble and subsequently tested positive was reportedly a regular user of the tracer app (and by the looks of it, had a fantastic weekend in the coolest little capital.) But many will be affected by the need to self-isolate – for example, Radio NZ reports 2500 people who were in Te Papa alone will now face various degrees of restriction, let alone every other location of interest. And as Dr Siouxsie Wiles outlines, the person likely has the dangerous Delta variant of Covid, which makes it a very serious situation.

After a period of being largely moribund, Wellington’s testing centres had to lurch back into life. It perhaps could have gone a bit smoother, even if scaling up these sorts of responses is never going to be easy. One News reports visitors to the sole pop-up testing site were given the wrong 0800 number to call, while there was also a communications mix up over whether tests could be done at Kilbirnie Sports Centre (they cannot.) And the NZ Herald reports a Te Papa worker was turned away from the testing centre, despite presumably being a high priority. Stuff had a similar story, which suggests multiple people had frustrating experiences. For those needing a test today, the centre on Taranaki St is fully booked.

So what happens next? That probably depends a lot on luck, and if contact tracers are able to do their work quickly enough. Analysing whether an actual lockdown could be possible for Wellington, the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Derek Cheng argues that while the somewhat unusual move of going to level two without any confirmed cases might seem like overkill, the recent experience of Sydney shows how quickly things can move.




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