Travellers await their flights out of Peru on March 16 at the Jorge Chavez international airport in Callao, Lima, minutes before borders were closed (Photo: LUKA GONZALES/AFP via Getty Images)
Travellers await their flights out of Peru on March 16 at the Jorge Chavez international airport in Callao, Lima, minutes before borders were closed (Photo: LUKA GONZALES/AFP via Getty Images)

PoliticsMarch 28, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, March 28: NZers stuck in Peru bumped from repatriation flight

Travellers await their flights out of Peru on March 16 at the Jorge Chavez international airport in Callao, Lima, minutes before borders were closed (Photo: LUKA GONZALES/AFP via Getty Images)
Travellers await their flights out of Peru on March 16 at the Jorge Chavez international airport in Callao, Lima, minutes before borders were closed (Photo: LUKA GONZALES/AFP via Getty Images)

For all The Spinoff’s latest coverage of Covid-19 see here. Read Siouxsie Wiles’s work here. New Zealand is currently in alert level four. The country is shut down, apart from essential services. 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.

On the live updates afternoon/evening shift: Alice Neville

8.00pm: The day in sum

  • New Zealand is temporarily removing tariffs on all medical and hygiene imports needed for the Covid-19 response.
  • St John announced family members were no longer allowed to accompany patients in ambulances, “exceptional circumstances” notwithstanding.
  • There was confusion around the wage subsidy scheme, with the rules appearing to imply that the full $350 subsidy must be paid even to part-time workers who usually earn much less. Since our 2.30pm update, the Work and Income website has been updated again, this time to say that any difference between the subsidy and what an employer is usually paid should be used for the wages of other affected staff.
  • Air New Zealand announced eight of its staff had tested positive for the virus.
  • Sarah Stuart-Black, director of Civil Defence emergency management, announced 83 new Covid-19 cases in New Zealand today, which brings the total to 451.
  • The Ministry for Culture and Heritage issued a ruling saying that non-daily newspapers were not considered essential under the level four regulations, which has huge impacts for publishers of magazines and community newspapers. See Duncan Greive’s story here.
  • The global tally of infected passed half a million, with deaths surpassing 25,000. Italy suffered the highest single-day death toll of any country since the virus emerged.
  • UK prime minister Boris Johnson tested positive for Covid-19.

7.40pm: New Zealanders stranded in Peru bumped from Australian repatriation flight 

Two dozen New Zealanders stranded in Peru have had their hopes of getting home dashed after being told they can no longer board a repatriation flight to Sydney.

The commercial charter flight from Lima was being organised by Australian travel company Chimu Adventures, which had been working with the Australian government to get stranded Australians home. The New Zealand government had encouraged New Zealanders to register their interest in getting on the flight, one of the stranded Kiwis told RNZ, and it’s believed 24 New Zealanders had paid around $5000 each and had their seats confirmed. 

The flight was due to leave Sunday, March 29, but in recent hours, the New Zealanders have been told they can no longer board, because there are no onward flights to New Zealand available on the same day the flight lands in Sydney – Tuesday, March 31.

Australia closed its borders to all but Australian citizens, residents and immediate family members on March 20. New Zealand citizens who are usually resident in Australia are exempt from the restrictions. New Zealand citizens who aren’t – i.e. who live in New Zealand – can transit through, but in a new rule that’s apparently just come into force today, all transits must occur on the same day as arrival.

On a Facebook group for New Zealanders stranded in Peru, those who had bought tickets for the flight were devastated, saying they had confirmed with MFAT they would be allowed to transit through Sydney to get home. That wasn’t the only source of confusion –  another New Zealander, doctor Kay Hodgetts, was on the waiting list for the flight but was told she couldn’t get on because she didn’t have an Australian visa in her passport. New Zealanders, of course, don’t need visas to enter Australia. 

In the Facebook group, the stranded passengers were encouraging each other to apply to be let in to Australia on compassionate grounds.

It’s not the first time during the Covid-19 pandemic that Australia’s treatment of New Zealanders has been in the spotlight: prime minister Jacinda Ardern has pleaded with her Australian counterpart to make an exception to the rule that bars many of the 650,000 New Zealanders there from receiving a benefit, but as of this morning she said there had been no change

“New Zealanders who are in Australia are more likely to be employed, they earn more, they are Australia’s best migrant workforce and I’d like to think they could be supported during this horrific time for everyone, alongside their fellow Australian workers,” Ardern said.

5.15pm: South Island Māori anxious about financial insecurity, survey shows; advice to pregnant people issued

Preliminary results from a survey of South Island Māori has revealed many are worried about the long-term implications of the Covid-19 outbreak. The survey of 338 households was commissioned by Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu, Whānau Ora’s commissioning agency for the South Island, which has in response launched a campaign to support whānau called #Manaaki20.

Te Pūtahitanga chief executive Helen Leahy said the responses show most whānau have what they need to get through in the short term, but as the pandemic lasts, this may no longer be the case. “We know there is increasing intensity around food security, income, power and sanitation products. The reality is that pre-existing challenges will be intensified by Covid-19,” said Leahy.

“A short-term need right now is ensuring whānau can access soap and hygiene products,” she added. “Food security is likely to be a real issue for future weeks, with 42% (683) of whānau members saying they didn’t have enough kai to last four weeks.”

The agency has set up a website to encourage whānau to share online what they’re doing to support each other. Te Waipounamu whānau can complete the survey here.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health has issued advice to people pregnant during the Covid-19 outbreak, encouraging them to continue seeing their midwife, albeit over the phone or via video conferencing where possible.

“Seeing your midwife for routine and urgent visits is still necessary throughout this lockdown period,” reads the advice. “Your midwife will do as much of your consult as she can either over the phone or via video conferencing. Your midwife may reduce the number of face-to-face visits you have.”

4.45pm: NZ removes tariffs on medical and hygiene imports for Covid-19 response

New Zealand will temporarily remove tariffs on all medical and hygiene imports needed for the Covid-19 response, the government has announced. Customs will initially apply tariff concessions to all testing kits and diagnostic reagents (the stuff they mix with the sample to diagnose whether its Covid-19, apparently), as well as soap imports, and other medical and hygiene products will follow.

“There is increased global demand for these medical and hygiene products and some countries are restricting their exports of them. We want to make sure that New Zealand has the most straightforward and cost effective access possible to the supply of the goods needed to respond to COVID-19,” Kris Faafoi said.

“Even though New Zealand already has low tariffs overall, and a significant proportion of our imports are tariff-free thanks to our free trade agreements, some imported products required for the Covid-19 response remain subject to tariffs,” said consumer affairs minister Kris Faafoi in a press release. “Removing tariffs on these products will reduce their cost of imports and facilitate access to them from the widest possible range of overseas suppliers.”

3.55pm: Breakfast radio in the lockdown era

For a touch of light relief this afternoon, may I suggest these mini-reviews of breakfast radio? There’s nothing like a bit of routine to give comfort amid the chaos, so Alex Casey and Tara Ward tuned into Mai, ZM, The Hits, Coast,  The Edge, The Rock and Hauraki to see what Jase and Flynny and Fletch and Vaughan and Roger and Streety et al were up to. From flesh batons to paddleboards, it’s a wild read. 

3.00pm: Family members can no longer accompany patients in ambulances

To limit the spread of Covid-19, family members will no longer be able to travel with patients in ambulances unless there are “exceptional circumstances”, says St John.

St John medical director Dr Tony Smith said there would be some exceptions on compassionate grounds, for example “when a patient is gravely ill or when a child is being transported”, but in such instances only one family member would be permitted. 

“We understand this initiative may be distressing for patients and families in an already stressful situation but appreciate the public’s help with keeping everyone safe,” said Smith. “Please respect our ambulance officers and treat them with kindness should you not be permitted to travel in the ambulance with a loved one.”

2.30pm: Lack of clarity around wage subsidy remains

Finance minister Grant Robertson has attempted to clarify changes made yesterday to the wage subsidy scheme that appeared to provide part-time workers with large windfalls, but official government advice online remains unclear.

“The new rules say that employers must pay workers the full subsidy amount even if it is more than their salary,” said National’s finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith in a press release sent late this morning. “So a part-timer, such as a student doing four hours a week and earning $75, would now get the full part-time subsidy of $350 a week.”

He called on the government to rectify the anomaly by adding a requirement that businesses should pay their employees the lower amount of the wage subsidy amount or their normal wages.

Robertson appeared to do so in a press release sent an hour later, saying, “We still want employers to use their best endeavours to pay employees 80% of their normal salaries.  Where this is not possible, we want the value of the subsidy to be passed on. 

“But to be absolutely clear, if a person’s income is normally less than the subsidy they can be paid their normal salary. This is particularly an issue for part-time employees, some of whom normally earn less than the $350 per week. We urge employers to use normal hours in the period before Covid-19 to assess the amount to be paid,” Robertson said.

But the Work and Income website is still saying that if it’s not possible to pay staff at least 80% of their regular wages, employers should pass on “at least the full rate of the Covid-19 wage subsidy to each employee named in your application – even if their usual wage was less than the subsidy”.

2.00pm: Eight Air New Zealand staff test positive for Covid-19

Eight Air New Zealand employees have tested positive for Covid-19, the airline has said in a statement, one of whom has now recovered. All work on the airline’s long-haul fleet and operated sectors to Los Angeles or London.

1.30pm: 83 new Covid-19 cases; reports of social media abuse

There are 83 new Covid-19 cases in New Zealand today, 78 confirmed and five probable, says Sarah Stuart-Black, director of Civil Defence emergency management. This brings New Zealand’s total number of cases to 451. Stuart-Black said 12 people were in hospital: three in Wellington regional hospital, two in Nelson hospital, two in Whangārei and one each Auckland, Waikato, Taranaki, Dunedin and Greymouth hospitals. Two people are in intensive care units, one on a ventilator.

Overseas travel and links to confirmed cases remain the biggest sources of infection, she said. Stuart-Black said 50 people have now recovered from Covid-19. The average daily number of tests is 1,613.

Stuart-Black issued a plea for people to be kind, saying there had been reports of people with Covid-19 being abused on social media.  “There’s a high level of anxiety, but it’s not acceptable to be attacking people.”

A small number of Air New Zealand staff have tested positive for Covid-19, said Stuart-Black, and the airline would be making a public statement this afternoon.

All-of-government controller John Ombler reiterated that people should be sticking to their bubbles. “By all means go for a short walk or run in your neighbourhood, but don’t drive to a beach or park outside of your neighbourhood.” He urged New Zealanders not to go hunting, fishing, swimming and surfing, and said he’d heard reports of people playing touch rugby and frisbee in parks. “That’s just stupid. People need to stop doing that sort of thing.”

Ombler said the government was continuing to bring New Zealanders home and ensuring there was capacity to accommodate those without self-isolation plans. “I’ve heard about a lack of food for some returning New Zealanders, and that’s not good enough. Hotels are required to feed guests and we’re discussing issues with them.” He said the Red Cross had been sent to hotels to help with welfare issues.

On supermarkets, Ombler said, “No one needs to worry about supermarkets running out of food. The supply chain is working.” He advised avoiding queues by going during the week instead of the weekend, send only one person, shop for essentials only, respect the physical distancing, pack your own bag and when you go home, wash your hands thoroughly.

12.15: Magazines and community newspapers deemed non-essential

Part of the reason the live updates slowed this morning was that I snuck off to report a story which might appear relatively small, but could have profound implications. Yesterday the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, which regulates the print media industry, issued a ruling saying that non-daily newspapers were not considered essential under the level four regulations. This has huge impacts for publishers of magazines and community newspapers, and I spoke to publishers and their representatives to get a sense of how it would impact them and their audiences.

“The move discriminates against small communities,” Cambridge News publisher David Mackenzie told The Spinoff. “Daily newspapers simply do not serve them… they only serve the towns they’re based in.” He cited areas like Ruapehu and Waiheke as examples of areas with vibrant community newspapers which would be effectively cut off from local information by the move.

Mackenzie says the motivation to continue publishing is in no way economic, but connected to the role the papers play in their towns. In fact, because of the advertising market evaporating, most would incur larger losses by printing, says Mackenzie, than they would by halting production. “It’s because they firmly believe in the role they have to play in the community,” he says, admitting that more than one of his members has contemplated defying the edict and printing regardless.”

Read the full story on The Spinoff

12.00pm: Fears of Covid-19 growing in Indonesia 

Fears of the pandemic are mounting in the world’s fourth most populous country, which has recorded 78 Covid-19 deaths – the most of any South East Asian country. Over 900 cases have been confirmed across the archipelago, but with 280m people there are concerns that the number of hidden infections could be in the tens of thousands, according to The Guardian.

In February The Spinoff business editor Michael Andrew was in the capital Jakarta, a monstrous city of 10m inhabitants that doubles in population during the day when millions commute from the countryside for work. As in other developing countries, many people in Indonesia live communally in villages, known there as kampungs. Naturally, their “bubbles” are massive, so self-isolating and social distancing won’t be nearly as easy to practise as it is in New Zealand.

With the Islamic holiday of Ramadan approaching in April, the Asia Times reports that officials are grappling with how to convince 220m Indonesian Muslims to stay put and not to return to their hometowns to celebrate as per the tradition.

9:30am: New Zealanders stranded in Australia to be brought home

A special Virgin Australia flight landing in Queenstown this afternoon will bring home New Zealanders still stranded in Australia. Once landed the flight will collect Australians who have been stranded in New Zealand and take them to Brisbane, reports RNZ.

Other New Zealanders stuck aboard a cruise ship off the coast of Western Australia have been allowed to disembark and will be transferred to an Air New Zealand flight home tonight. Over 108 New Zealanders were aboard the Vasco da Gama which docked at Freemantle Port after it was involved in a passenger trade with another ship off the coast of Thailand.

Meanwhile, Police have said they are cracking down on a small number of ‘Covid parties’, reports the NZ Herald. A spokesperson characterised these as ‘isolated incidents’, of a piece with Queenstown mayor Jim Boult’s exasperation with those playing frisbee golf and drinking on the lakefront.

8.10am: Toby Morris and Siouxsie Wiles on ‘The Lag’

Just in case you missed it yesterday, there’s a new Toby Morris and Siouxsie Wiles collaboration, explaining why our cases will continue to rise in the coming days – and why that shouldn’t overly concern us. It’s important to keep in mind, especially around 1pm each day, when the number of new Covid-19 cases in announced.

“The lag means the cases announced yesterday and today are from people getting Covid-19 at some point in the last two weeks. So even though we are in a level four lockdown now, the number of confirmed cases will continue to rise. And they may rise quite dramatically, so prepare yourself for that.

The important thing to remember is those cases don’t mean lockdown isn’t working. They just reflect our two sources of Covid-19 cases: the little pockets of community transmission we now know had started, and the thousands of Kiwis who have been travelling home over the last few weeks from countries with exploding numbers of cases. Remember, though, not every Kiwi travelling back from overseas will be incubating the virus!”

Read the full story on The Spinoff here

7.30am: Stuff on the ‘nation building’ coming on the other side of lockdown

Over the last week, we’ve all been consumed by preparations for lockdown, and processing its myriad impacts on our lives (not forgetting that thousands of us are still heading out to work in essential services like supermarkets, healthcare and police). But relatively little coverage has focused on what awaits us on the other side. This is why Stuff’s current lead story is so well-timed, as the dawn of our first weekend under lockdown feels like a natural moment to cast our eyes further dow the road. Political editor Luke Malpass and senior political reporter Henry Cooke have finance minister Grant Robertson talking through how a huge programme of government infrastructure is being planned to help revive the economy from the inevitable heavy recession which is bearing down on us.

“The economy is more like an oven than a light switch. When you switch it off, it takes a while to warm back up again.”

When it comes to an economic recovery over both the medium and long term, Robertson told Stuff that a nation-building type programme would be “a significant element” of future policy. He said he has tasked both Regional Development Minister Shane Jones and Transport Minister Phil Twyford with finding infrastructure projects that could be pulled forward to boost economic activity and employment.

“This is a situation that is really hard for workers and businesses and the short term matters. We also want to be thinking about the medium and long term. How do we come out of this strong? How do we come out of it moving as quickly as we possibly can?”

Read the full story on Stuff here

7.20am: The impact on NZ’s media is potentially catastrophic

A shameless plug for my own podcast, The Fold, an episode of which I recorded yesterday, alone under a towel. I had wondered about whether I had overstated the impact, but last night, after recording, I spoke to a senior executive at one of New Zealand’s largest media companies, who suggested that three of the largest entities would be unlikely to last beyond late April or early May without some form of government intervention beyond that which has already been announced. And, as the above Stuff story shows, and our Stickybeak survey underlines, media is crucial to our understanding of this enormous story in all its complexity. Below I briefly explain why Covid-19 is hitting the media so hard:

“There’s a huge paradox in the pandemic’s relationship to the media, in that all of us are seeing record ratings, which in normal times would lead to big revenue spikes – but because almost no client is advertising, the opposite is happening. Journalists are working harder than ever, serving bigger audiences than ever, but the bottom is falling out of the business in a completely unprecedented way.” / DG

Listen to The Fold here

7.15am: Poll says one in 10 New Zealanders plans to flout the lockdown

In an exclusive poll conducted by NZ startup Stickybeak for The Spinoff, 9% of New Zealanders said they planned not to comply with the lockdown. The poll of 600 respondents was entirely conducted after Ardern’s Monday announcement that we were headed into level four, and also probed fears around the economic and health impacts of the virus, governmental handling, media consumption and police powers. I urge you to read the whole thing – it helps give a picture of how the country will respond to the crisis. Here’s Stickybeak co-founder David Brain on the non-compliance figure.

“In one sense the most remarkable finding is that 9% of respondents claim they will defy the lockdown. That’s potentially hundreds of thousands of virus carriers out in our communities, despite the warnings and appeals to personal and family safety – and to people’s better nature and the national cause.

Some, of course, may have no permanent or settled home and thus compliance may not be easy or even possible. Others will have their own reasons, mostly idiotic and self-centred and it would be easy to focus on them. However, a 91% compliance rate to never-before-seen restrictions on the way we all live and work is probably the more remarkable number, and may well be enough, when coupled with police enforcement, to suggest the lockdown will achieve its goals.”

6.45am: World updates – Boris Johnson has Covid-19; Italian deaths surge anew

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has tested positive for Covid-19, with mild symptoms, and is planning to self-isolate for seven days while working remotely. Health minister Matt Hancock has also tested positive, and chief medical officer Chris Whitty is strongly suspected and symptomatic. The infections come as the UK enters its first weekend in a lockdown which came relatively late in its outbreak, and has thus far seen nearly 15,000 confirmed cases and 759 deaths, per Johns Hopkins’ database.

The global tally of infected now stands at 569,000, with deaths surpassing 25,000. Hopes that Italy was starting to get on top of its outbreak have suffered a setback, with Al Jazeera reporting that yesterday it suffered the highest single-day death toll of any country since the virus emerged. 919 died there, along with 769 in Spain, on the same day the US overtook both it and China to become the single-largest source of infections worldwide. To get a sense of just how worrying this is, I urge you to view a deeply troubling series of graphs at the Financial Times (normally a hard paywall, they’ve made them free). It strongly suggests that some countries will be as impacted as Italy, potentially even more so – but that they are simply delayed by when the virus took root.

Astoundingly, many nations with large and sustained outbreaks are still not implementing major lockdowns. Swedish bars and restaurants remain open – but only for table service, for example, despite it having over 3,000 cases and 92 deaths. And the US remains under guidelines, rather than mandate. There focus was more on the stimulus than the outbreak, with a US$2.2tn package finally passed in recent hours, and headed to president Trump for his signature to become law. This would see cash payments to hundreds of millions of Americans, and potentially renew the focus on the response to the virus itself.

Fears are growing about the impact of Covid-19 on the developing world. Afghanistan currently has 93 cases, but a major outbreak would be devastating for a nation with far less health infrastructure than the relatively wealthy countries which have been hit hardest to date. Finally – a rare piece of potentially excellent news. Al Jazeera reports that researchers in Senegal are conducting validation trials on a Covid-19 test which would deliver results in 10 minutes and cost US$1. Absent a vaccine, mass accessible testing is seen as key to getting the outbreak under control. / DG

6am: Welcome to rolling updates for the first weekend under level four lockdown

Honestly, the fact typing that headline above didn’t feel that strange shows just how fast we’re acclimatising to this unthinkably strange state. I’m Duncan Greive, the managing editor of The Spinoff, and will be doing the first shift on the updates this morning, before our freshly-minted co-deputy editor Alice Neville takes over around lunchtime. The first thing I’ll be doing is wrapping world news from overnight, which should be up by around 6.30am and will be led by the outbreak at the highest levels of the UK government. So far prime minister Boris Johnson and health minister Matt Hancock have tested positive and chief medical officer Chris Whitty is suspected and self-isolating.

I would also urge you to check out the results of a poll jointly commissioned by The Spinoff and NZ startup Stickybeak, looking at New Zealanders’ attitudes toward Covid-19, the governmental response and our fears. All responses came after the announcement of the lockdown – so it really is a revealing insight into where our heads are at right now. / DG

5.45am: A recap of yesterday’s key events

  • Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield announced 85 new cases of Covid-19, bringing the total to 368. One of the patients was on a ventilator in Nelson hospital’s intensive care unit, Bloomfield said this afternoon.
  • Civil Defence’s Sarah Stuart-Black said most of us were complying with the lockdown, but there were isolated reports of people flouting the rules.
  • Finance minister Grant Robertson announced a tightening of the wage subsidy scheme.
  • PPE shortages continued to cause concern, and the government continued to issue assurances that there was plenty to go around.
  • On The Spinoff, Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris explained how the Covid-19 lag works.
  • Also on The Spinoff, a supermarket checkout worker spoke to Leonie Hayden about life on the frontline.
  • And from his Kingsland bunker, Duncan Greive assessed the impact of Covid-19 on New Zealand’s already struggling media in a new episode of The Fold podcast.
Keep going!