Live updates, March 26: Cook Islands travel bubble planned for May start – but no official date given

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for March 26, bringing you the latest news throughout the day. Get in touch at stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

3.35pm: Covid-19, on this day

Your daily look at where we were in the Covid-19 pandemic, one year ago.

On March 26, 2020: New Zealand spent its first full day in alert level four lockdown. The total number of confirmed cases grew by 78, up to 283. There had still been no deaths from the virus confirmed in New Zealand.

The streets of lockdown (photo: The Spinoff)

2.40pm: Cook Islands travel bubble planned for May start, Ardern announces

Two-way quarantine-free travel with the Cook Islands is set to begin in May, Jacinda Ardern has announced. No official date has been provided.

The prime minister has just wrapped up a meeting with her Cook Islands counterpart Mark Brown.

Speaking to media in Auckland, Ardern said she was “working in earnest” toward that May start. “We have had one way travel for some time because the Cook Islands pose no risk. We pose the risk,” she said.

Ardern called today’s meeting special. “It is the first we’ve had since borders closed last March,” she said. The pair have kept in contact throughout the pandemic, but Ardern said there is no substitute for face-to-face communication.

In her opening remarks, Ardern said her and Brown also discussed the vaccination roll-out. The government also re-prioritised $20 million of additional support for the Cook Islands.

2.20pm: Ardern to address media with Cook Islands PM

The PM Jacinda Ardern is running late for a media conference with her Cook Islands counterpart Mark Brown in Auckland.

It’s the first press conference that Ardern has shared with another leader since the Covid-19 pandemic began. You can check out a livestream on Newshub and we’ll have the latest soon – including the all important answer: is quarantine free travel with the Cooks set to open? And when?

New episode: When the Facts Change with Bernard Hickey

It’s Friday which means there’s another episode of Bernard Hickey’s podcast When the Facts Change.

So, what’s it all about?

The government’s move to put the brakes on housing investment may lead to house price drops of 10% or more – exactly what Jacinda Ardern said she didn’t want to happen. On this week’s episode of When the Facts Change, Bernard Hickey talks through the consequences of this week’s big announcements.

Read more from Bernard here or check out the podcast below:

This week on When the Facts Change, Bernard is joined by Kiwibank chief economist Jarrod Kerr and Māori housing advocate Jade Kake to unpack what the new housing rules really mean. Subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotify or your favourite podcast provider.

1.00pm: Probe into MIQ walks launched after suspected Covid-19 spread at Grand Mercure

Updated

An investigation into how Covid-19 possibly spread within the Grand Mercure managed isolation facility is under way.

Two returnees staying at the hotel both tested positive for Covid-19, despite being on different floors. Both were infected with the UK variant and one of those infected traveled on a bus to an exercise field with others from different facilities.

Jim Bliss, the head of MIQ, said an investigation has been ordered into how Covid-19 may have been able to spread. “Part of that investigation is into the managed isolation walks that occur from four facilities in Auckland,” he said.

A 24-hour pause has been put on the busing of returnees to go on walks as a result, said Bliss.

“We are focused on identifying what occurred in this instance and fixing it.”

Of the 250 returnees asked to get a follow-up test, 193 have so far been contacted. Some people at the hotel have had their time in managed isolation extended as a precaution.

Meanwhile, all close contacts of a Grand Millennium hotel worker who contracted Covid-19 have so far tested negative, Ashley Bloomfield confirmed. An investigation into how she caught the virus is ongoing with the cause, at this stage, a mystery.

A household contact of the worker who initially returned a weak positive result has now tested negative for a second time. “She is continuing to be managed as a close contact,” he said.

Pushed on the tough criteria for compassionate exemptions to leave managed isolation, Bliss said the process is always being reviewed. In a recent case, a woman from Australia was denied the chance to farewell an already deceased family member on the grounds that it was unsafe.

Bloomfield confirmed he had not yet received his Covid-19 vaccination, but was pleased that community leaders were stepping up and backing the jab.

Also announced today: there are three new cases in managed isolation. The total number of active cases is 74. About 50,000 vaccines have now been given out, Bloomfield said.

12.45pm: Watch – Bloomfield to speak after possible Covid-19 transmission at MIQ hotel

Ashley Bloomfield and Jim Bliss – the head of MIQ – are set to front media shortly after possible Covid-19 transmission was reported at the Grand Mercure managed isolation hotel yesterday.

Watch below:

12.10pm: Theatre to recast trans character after criticism

The role of a trans woman in a local theatre production will be recast after a public backlash.

Both the Court Theatre in Christchurch and Circa Theatre in Wellington have apologised after a cis-gendered man was cast in the role of Mia, a trans woman, in a production of Things I Know to be True. It came after an open letter – reported on by The Spinoff – was posted on social media criticising the casting decision.

“Casting a cis actor in this role enables real life violence towards the trans community as it perpetuates the dangerous, too often fatal misconception that trans women are cis men in costume – this is untrue,” the letter said. “Trans women ARE women and it is non-negotiable that trans characters should be played by trans actors.”

The production is currently being staged at the Court before moving to Wellington next month. A statement on the Court Theatre’s Facebook said the role will be recast as soon as it is feasible to do so.

In their apology, Circa Theatre acknowledged the harm the casting decision caused to the Trans community.

11.10am: Covid-19 press conference scheduled

After the news yesterday of possible transmission of Covid-19 at the Grand Mercure MIQ facility, Ashley Bloomfield and the head of managed isolation Jim Bliss will front a 1pm press conference today.

The fact that there is a press conference doesn’t instantly mean there’s bad news and Bliss’ presence will likely be in order to explain how the transmission may have been able to occur.

We’ll have a livestream for you shortly before 1pm along with live coverage here, as always.

10.20am: Mixed messages on ID requirements for Covid-19 vaccination

Earlier this week, The Spinoff’s Josie Adams wrote about her experience getting the Covid-19 vaccination (Josie is a household contact of an MIQ worker).

Josie was instructed to bring photo identification to the appointment and told that she could use the email for free public transport to and from the appointment. However, both the Ministry of Health and Unite Against Covid-19 Twitter accounts subsequently claimed that photo ID is not required and that free public transport was something they were unaware of.

We’ve since cleared up the issue and you can read Josie’s full report here.

10.00am: Cook Islands PM set to meet with Ardern; travel bubble could be announced

A two-way travel bubble with the Cook Islands could be announced today.

Jacinda Ardern is set to meet with Cook Islands PM Mark Brown in Auckland – the first visit by a leader since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the Herald, a travel bubble will only be signed off when there is confidence over contact-tracing capability and regular testing of border workers in the Cook Islands.

Like Monday’s pre-announcement of trans-Tasman travel, it’s unlikely quarantine-free travel with the Cook Islands would start immediately even if announced today.

9.15am: Top health expert says we need to look at Australian MIQ model

There are calls to tighten our managed isolation system after possible transmission of Covid-19 at the Grand Mercure hotel.

In Australia, guests in MIQ are confined to their rooms for the full 14 days – while here they are able to exercise in communal areas outside.

Epidemiologist Nick Wilson told RNZ we should be following Australia’s lead. “We really need to seriously look at the Australian model where everyone in MIQ stays in their room for the full 14 days. Hopefully they are supplied with exercise equipment and all that but it really is a safer approach,” he said.

Tightening up the MIQ system will be even more important if we open a travel bubble with Australia, Wilson added.

“If we really want that to work well with no border failures occurring that would disrupt that travel, it’s time the government looks at tightening up the processes with its MIQ system.”

8.00am: Unvaccinated border workers to be removed from frontline jobs

Unvaccinated border workers will soon be off our frontline.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said they can’t force people get vaccinated but it is unacceptable to have unvaccinated people working on the border.

“There’s a distinction between saying ‘in order to do a particular type of job, you need to be vaccinated’, and saying, ‘if you’re doing that job, you need to be vaccinated’,” Hipkins told the health select committee, as reported by RNZ. “One’s okay, and one’s not,” he said.

About 5% of the border workforce have refused a vaccine. However, Hipkins said the government would never make the vaccine mandatory as that could increase anti-vaccination beliefs.

National is offering its support behind the plan to bar unvaccinated workers from the frontline. The party’s Covid-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop said: “I think most people would find it reasonable that the government says, we’re trying to keep Covid out of the community and if you work at the border or in MIQ, you have to be vaccinated after a certain period of time.”

7.30am: Top stories from The Bulletin

Significant health sector reforms are likely to be announced ahead of the Budget in May. That comes out of a speech earlier this week from health minister Andrew Little, who has discussed the principles underpinning what the reforms will actually be. They are that many groups in society are disadvantaged in the health system, and that the District Health Board system isn’t working. But on both points, Little’s speech left plenty of room for contesting how those changes will be achieved.

On the question of DHBs, both the structure of their responsibilities and the number that exist will be central to the reforms – and we don’t yet know the answers to either. There was an excellent report on Politik yesterday that looked at this, noting “clues” that rationalisations were still on the way – “POLITIK understands the Transition Unit has accepted the Simpson-Roche review’s argument that DHBs need to be rationalised through mergers.” Overspends at DHBs are now extremely common, to the point they were last year described as a “feature of the system”, and the costs they’re facing are increasing. On the other hand, health commentator Ian Powell told Newstalk ZB that it appears the minister is now looking at less centralisation of the DHB system than previously indicated.

Another major recommendation from the Simpson-Roche review is the establishment of a Māori Health Authority. Under their version, that organisation would have played a relatively limited direct role, but it appears the government is considering giving such an organisation broader responsibilities. Lady Tureiti Moxon, the chair of the National Urban Māori Authority, said there is currently a distinct shortage of detail about how such an entity would operate, and whether it would have the power necessary to help turn around the disadvantages Māori currently face in the health system. “Mana motuhake (independence) in the form of a Māori Health Authority is paramount and it must have teeth so we achieve equitable outcomes for our people and save lives.”

Meanwhile, on the health system generally, hospitals are struggling after a couple of months with heavy loads. Radio NZ’s Tess Brunton reports it isn’t just Dunedin that has reached capacity in recent days, patients are facing lengthy delays, and many shifts are being run understaffed. What the story indicates is that hospitals are effectively the tip of the spear – it’s very noticeable when an emergency department says it can’t take in any more patients, but there is strain on every level of the system that is less obviously visible.

Read more and subscribe to The Bulletin here




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