Police commissioner Mike Bush.
Police commissioner Mike Bush.

PoliticsMarch 30, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, March 30: PM announces price-gouging watchdog email; good news for NZers in Australia

Police commissioner Mike Bush.
Police commissioner Mike Bush.

For all The Spinoff’s latest coverage of Covid-19 see here. Read Siouxsie Wiles’s work hereNew 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

3.30pm: On The Spinoff today

2.15pm: Matamata cluster linked to St Patrick’s Day party

The Waikato DHB has confirmed the Matamata cluster of Covid-19 cases is linked to a St Patrick’s Day celebration at the Redoubt Bar.

Most of the 23 confirmed cases in the area have been identified as attending the March 17 event, or were directly linked to those who attended, according to a DHB statement. The original source is believed to be linked to overseas travel.

A local assessment and testing centre will be in operation at the Matamata Civic Centre from 3pm today and through the week. All tests will be given priority.

1.55pm: Radio Sport closes

The Covid-19 crisis in media has claimed New Zealand’s last surviving radio station solely dedicated to sport.

Staff at Radio Sport have been told that the station has closed indefinitely, amid the loss of revenue that has come with the cancellation or postponement of sporting competitions all over New Zealand and around the world. As of 1pm, all frequencies are carrying sister station Newstalk ZB.

Wider job losses are also possible in the NZME group, particularly in sports. In an email sent to all staff seen by The Spinoff, CEO Michael Boggs said it was an “incredibly difficult decision”.

Read Alex Braae’s report here.

1.50pm: Committee to scrutinise NZ response to Covid-19 begins tomorrow

The operations of New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy have, along with the rest of the country, been dramatically curbed by the Covid-19 lockdown brought about by alert level four.

Central to the interim measures are the establishment of the Epidemic Response Committee, to be chaired by opposition leader Simon Bridges. In a statement just received, he said: “National will be taking a constructive and principled approach to scrutinising the government’s response … It’s important there is strong scrutiny of our nation’s response to this pandemic as it will affect future generations, both in terms of lives but also in terms of the billions of dollars being spent.”

He added: “Over the first couple of days we will be looking particularly into our health response with the minister of health and director-general of health both appearing in front of the committee. And then our economic response with the minister of finance and secretary of the Treasury also coming in. We will also be questioning the government in regards to the response from Police, Civil Defence and Customs.”

John Ombler, who is overseeing the all-of-government response, is first up tomorrow. It kicks off at 10am and will be streamed here; in the likely event you’ve got better things to do, we’ll be keeping an eye on proceedings and updating on The Spinoff.

1.30pm: Three arrests, 4,200 reports to police non-compliance line

The site set up to allow reporting of people not adhering to the alert level four had crashed, with 4,200 reports received.

Of the 4,200 complaints, about 1,000 related to businesses and the remainder to people

There have also been three arrests, said Mike Bush, the commissioner of police. They related to “consistent breaches”. Two had been taken into custody and subsequently released without charge. Another, who faces “other outstanding matters” remained in custody. “We will be out there ensuring people do comply,” he said.

He was concerned, he said about tourists “driving around the country from destination to destination”. There had been reports of campervans zipping along the Desert Road, he said. Introducing checkpoints was a possibility, “but at the moment we’re more mobile in terms of our interventions”.

Bush said there had been an initial rise in domestic violence offences under lockdown, but that had since reversed. “We’ve had a very slight reduction in family violence and family harm reports.”

He added: “We’ve seen a massive decline in public place violence, as you would expect. We’ve seen a significant decline in the number of people being arrested and placed into police custody – all positive things which enable us to redeploy into priority areas.”

Bush also said two police staff had tested positive for Covid-19. “They are at home taking every precaution, they’re not hospitalised, and we’re putting every piece of support behind them.”

The two cases are unconnected. Several hundred police were currently self-isolating “as a result of that and other things”.

He said a group of 59 new graduates had deployed, called the “Ashley Bloomfield recruit wing”. “Well done on that, Ash,” said Bush. The commissioner loves law and order, and he loves banter.

Bush said over the last three days, 4,547 New Zealanders have returned from overseas, 94 of whom people were symptomatic and are now in quarantine, and 1200 of whom “did not have a satisfactory self isolation plan so are in managed self-isolation”. He said around 3200 did have a plan and were self-isolating at home. “We will ensure we have a process to visit those people or to ensure they are complying with those restrictions.”

Asked about whether police should be doing more about the numbers of people out strolling and breaching distancing measures, he said: “Yes, absolutely. That’s what we’re considering,” said Bush.

1.10pm: 76 new cases of Covid-19 in NZ

There are 76 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health, has announced at his daily briefing. The good news is there are no new deaths.

The total cases now stands at 589, with 63 people having recovered.

There are 12 people in hospital with Covi-19. Three are expected to be discharged soon. Wellington Hospital has four of those. The others are in Whangarei, Nelson, Gisborne, Waikato, Dunedin, Auckland, Blenheim and Taranaki. Two patients are in Intensive Care.

More than 12,000 tests have been undertaken over the last week, with an average of 1,728 people a day.

Bloomfield said there are now 10 cases that they are judging to be “definitely community transmission”. Many more are currently under investigation.

He urged people who were not a high-priority group (people over 65, those with pre-existing medical conditions, pregnant women, children with respiratory illnesses and frontline workers) not to seek a flu vaccine. There’s plenty of vaccine, he said, but it’s a matter of priority. If you’re not in that group, you won’t be seen until mid-April at the earliest.

Following the death of a Covid-19 patient on the West Coast, who was initially cared for by hospital staff who weren’t wearing sufficient protective equipment because it was thought she had the flu, Bloomfield said district health boards have now been told that if anyone presents with a lower respiratory tract infection, such as pneumonia or bronchitis, they should be treated as they have Covid-19 until proven otherwise.

Asked about concerns that it hasn’t been deemed necessary for home-based carers to have PPE, Bloomfield said, “We’ll make a particular effort to ensure that our home and community support workers have access to masks.”

12.30pm: Countdown to offer bonus, reintroduce specials

Countdown has pledged to provide a worker bonus, following the Foodstuffs decision announced last night. “All of Countdown’s waged supermarket and distribution team members working during the lockdown will be paid a bonus equivalent to an additional 10% more per hour worked in recognition of the essential service they are providing New Zealanders at this challenging time. Going forward, from September, Countdown team members with 12 months or more service will earn a minimum of the living wage of $21.15 an hour,” it said in a statement.

Also: “Customers will also start to see specials return in stores nationwide over the course of this week and next as supplies rebuild and the country starts to settle into a calmer shopping pattern.”

12.10pm: The global picture

Via the World Health Organisation’s daily situation report, here is a glimpse of the way the pandemic has circled the Earth.

Epidemic curve of confirmed Covid-19, by date of report and WHO region to March 29

If you’re on mobile and squinting to make out those axes (apologies!), the vertical is number of cases, the top figure being 60,000, and the horizontal weeks from December 30 2019 through to March 23 2020.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is currently speaking at the White House. He’s announced the extension of guidelines for controlling Covid-19 to the end of April, saying the worst impact would be felt in about two weeks. The guidelines: no groups of more than 10 and older people to stay home. Several states have measures going far further, with the US now the most acutely affected country in the world.

Trumps has also, you’ll be shocked to learn, stated that his actions have averted millions of deaths and attacked journalists asking him questions.

In case you missed it, this was an actual tweet from the most powerful man in the world, a world presently engulfed by crisis, earlier today:


11.30am: The day ahead

At today’s 1pm briefing the director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, will provide details on the latest confirmed and probable Covid-19 cases. The last four days, the new cases numbered: 78, 85, 83, 63. Every one of those is a worry, obviously, especially for those directly affected. What is encouraging, however, is that the current rate of growth is broadly linear, rather than geometric. That is, for the moment we appear to be riding up an escalator rather than a skate ramp. On that note, we’ve got some visuals in the works that we’ll be publishing very soon.

Bloomfield will be joined by the commissioner of police, Mike Bush.

At around 4pm, Jacinda Ardern will appear at her post-cabinet press conference. Details on all of that will appear here within seconds, and with as few typos as possible.

10.50am: Act calls for more food supply competition

The Act Party is calling on the government to give butchers, grocers and bakeries the right to open, to prevent supermarkets from having a monopoly over food supply. “People are noticing price increases in part because supermarkets no longer face competition from these outlets,” said party leader David Seymour. It’s not clear how physical distancing protocols would be enforced by such measures, particularly for the workforce, though Seymour argues that dairies are currently managing.

9.50am: New stories today on The Spinoff

Petitions have been launched calling for much better pay for those essential workers who have to keep showing up during the lockdown, reports Toby Manhire. Among the workers deemed essential during this period are supermarket workers, health workers including nurses and cleaners, emergency services and bus drivers.

And in a reflective essay, historian Ayelet Zoran-Rosen writes about how societies in the past have dealt with plagues and pandemics. Some of the measures taken have been pretty harsh, but some aren’t in principle all that different from what we’re doing today.

8.55am: Reserve Bank has another big Monday morning

For the third straight Monday, the Reserve Bank has announced major moves to combat the Covid-19 downturn. In an effort to put more liquidity into the corporate sector, they’re launching a purchasing programme of corporate and asset-backed securities, calling it an open market operation. Assistant governor Christian Hawkesby said this facility “would provide another channel for banks to continue funding their corporate clients”. More details can be found in the RBNZ’s media release.

8.30am: Horticulture fears fruit will rot on the vine

With lockdown restrictions coming right in the middle of the kiwifruit and apple harvest season, horticulture companies worry that some fruit won’t end up being picked, or be able to be packed. Radio NZ reports workforces in some kiwifruit packhouses have had to be cut in half to observe safe distance protocols, and tray volumes are way down as a result. It’s little different in the apple industry, with some estimating that more than 10% of this year’s crop won’t be picked. It’s a stark contrast to several weeks ago, when horticulture was held up as an employment saviour for those who had lost work in forestry and other primary industries.

8.15am: Foodstuffs NI CEO says its specials are still running

Supermarket giant Countdown’s decision to suspend specials during the lockdown looks set to draw continued scrutiny this week, after rival Foodstuffs North Island CEO Chris Quin confirmed that his chains are running nearly as many discounts as they would normally. Quin, whose chains include New World and Pak n Save, told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking this morning that “hand on heart” there is no price gouging happening at Pak n Save and New World stores.

He said Foodstuffs have been monitoring the specials and prices of trolleys and there has only been a small increase since the lockdown, which he attributed to product shortages. “In a normal week we would have around 5000 specials in store in New World and last week we had around 4800 because some of our products are low or out of stock and we can’t put a product on sale when it’s out.”

There have been calls for a pricing probe into supermarkets in recent days, and PM Jacinda Ardern has asked for a briefing on the matter.

Meanwhile, the PM also confirmed in the Newstalk ZB interview that supermarkets would stay open for Easter, in contrast to the regular holiday trading rules.

7.40am: PM says focus on moving parts of NZ to lower alert after four weeks

In an interview on RNZ’s Morning Report, Jacinda Ardern has signalled that if the virus is contained, some regions of New Zealand could be able to relax the current restrictions on movement and gathering. “My focus is on at the end of the four weeks, at least for some parts of the country, moving to a lower level of alert.”

The response came off the back of questions about New Zealanders returning home, and on how long border restrictions might remain in place. Ardern singled out the tourism industry as being particularly exposed to the economic side of the crisis, and admitted that it was likely the border would remain highly restricted for a long time. “Unless you’re a country with herd immunity… I think most countries in the world will be doing border restrictions,” she told Morning Report’s Susie Ferguson.

New Zealanders spend around $35bn on tourism and travel, while inbound tourists spend around $41bn here – so theoretically were a sizeable proportion of that demand to transfer to domestic tourism during the period of restricted travel, it would go some way to mitigating the economic fallout of the virus.

She also reiterated, again, her disappointment with the Australian government’s continued exclusion of New Zealanders from its benefits. “It in my mind demonstrates why those benefits are so important right now,” she said, “otherwise it incentivises people to go to work when they’re sick.”

7.15am: Facebook launches fact-checking initiative for NZ and Pacific

Facebook’s regional policy head Mia Garlick has today announced that Facebook has expanded its third-party fact-checking initiative to cover New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. The social media giant will work with Australian Associated Press (AAP), who Garlick says “will independently review content and rate its accuracy so we can continue to reduce the spread of misinformation on our platforms.”

The move is tied to what Garlick says is a three part strategy to “combat misinformation on Facebook and Instagram”, noting that the company considers that critically important “during sensitive times such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the lead-up to the 2020 New Zealand general election.”

The three parts are, all per Facebook:

  • Remove content that violates its community standards: “We want to make sure people see accurate information on the platform, and fake accounts are often behind harmful and misleading content and we work hard to keep them off Facebook.”

  • Reduce misinformation rated as ‘false’: “We want to strike a balance between enabling New Zealanders to express themselves and promoting a trusted environment. For content that doesn’t violate our Community Standards or misinformation that doesn’t directly lead to physical harm, we contract AAP in New Zealand to review and rate the accuracy of content. We use various indicators, including feedback from people on Facebook, to predict whether articles, photos, and videos may be false and send this to our partners to review. When they rate a piece of content as ‘false’ — including false news and other types of viral misinformation, like memes or manipulated photos and videos — we will dramatically reduce its distribution on Facebook and Instagram.

  • Inform people when they see misinformation on Facebook’s services: “When a post is rated false by a fact-checker, we also add a strong ‘false information’ warning label over the content to notify people who still come across it, try to share it, or already have. We also show people Related Articles immediately below the post to help people stay informed with accurate, verified information from reputable sources.”

7.10am: The Bulletin wrap-up of all New Zealand’s key stories

Taken from our essential daily 7am news roundup – sign up for that or The Spinoff’s other newsletters here

When will the Covid-19 lockdown across New Zealand end? Short answer – when it’s actually safe to do so. Officially, the current state of level four restrictions will be in place for four weeks. But it’s worth going into a bit more depth about how and why that could end up being longer. 

Longer restrictions are already being talked about, with this Newshub piece being an example of that. It reported comments from PM Ardern which noted that the mechanisms in place could easily be extended. There could be regional lockdowns that continue, while other places may be able to open up again. It also noted that border restrictions are extremely unlikely to be lifted any time soon, given the virus appears to have spiralled out of control in many other countries, and it would simply be too dangerous to reopen before there’s a vaccine. In Britain, one such country with a horrific and rapid rise in deaths, there are now government suggestions that the lockdown will be in place until June at least, reports the Mirror

The key point for New Zealand’s domestic lockdowns will therefore be community transmission, and whether it has been stopped, according to this analysis from Stuff’s Henry Cooke. If it proves to actually be possible to eradicate Covid-19 from the country – and there is a chance of that happening – then we could see domestic life come close to returning to normal. According to the University of Otago’s Dr Michael Baker, who was quoted in the story, to be sure that was the case we’d basically need to be testing everyone with a fever to ensure that silent spread hadn’t been missed. 

It won’t be until at least next week that we have a clearer picture of whether the lockdown is likely to be extended. That comes from an interview health minister David Clark gave Q+A, in which he said that it would be about 10 days from the start of the lockdown before there was likely to be any bending of the curve on case rates, and for restrictions to be lifted would require a “significant” bend. He stressed that “we haven’t got into specific numbers,” and that tracking of cases would be crucial. But he also said that “it’s in our hands” to end the lockdown on time, provided everyone does their part. 

Meanwhile those breaking the lockdown rules are being told that they’re risking it being extended for everyone. And after being inundated with calls about people breaking those rules, the police have now set up an online system by which people can be dobbed in. There are very few situations where I’d encourage citizens to nark on each other for non-violent stuff, but this is certainly one of them, so if you know people are actively flouting the rules, report them.

New Zealand’s first death relating to Covid-19 has been recorded. It was a woman in her 70s, on the West Coast, who was initially admitted to hospital for what was thought to be influenza, complicated by underlying health conditions. PM Ardern said it “brings home exactly why we are taking such strong measures to stop the spread of this virus. Left unchecked, it runs the risk of taking the lives of many more people.” 21 staff at the hospital are now in self-isolation, after treating the woman with PPE suitable for influenza, rather than for Covid-19. 

Further updates on current case numbers can be found in yesterday’s live updates page, but in brief: The total number is now 514, and there are seven ‘significant clusters‘ of cases around the country. Nine patients are currently in hospital, and an average of almost 1800 tests a day were processed over the last week. 56 patients have now recovered from their symptoms. 

The Australian government is continuing to discriminate against New Zealand citizens who find themselves unemployed, reports Radio NZ. The 650,000 NZers in Australia are barred from receiving a benefit, which has always been the case, but with mass unemployment about to hit the country has been thrown into the spotlight. A few people who are now in this position spoke to RNZ about their situation, with two laid off workers noting that up until they were made redundant (through no fault of their own) they had been hard-working taxpayers. 

New Zealanders overseas continue to struggle to make it home, with options and transit routes dwindling. One News reported on the dozens of NZers still in Peru, many of which had been booked on a charter flight, but were then unable to connect through Sydney to get here. It goes both ways – there are some people from other countries stuck in New Zealand too. Politik this morning has reported on a plea for reciprocity from the British government, who have thousands of citizens currently stranded here.  

Workers at one New World supermarket were told they won’t be paid if they find themselves unable to work over the lockdown period, reported Stuff on Saturday. It quickly looked like spiralling into something of a PR disaster for the franchise over the weekend. However, on Sunday One News reported that policy would change, and that all vulnerable workers who had to self-isolate would continue to be paid. The Foodstuffs group (which includes New World, Pak’n’Save and Four Square) will also pay frontline staff a 10% bonus over the level four lockdown period – which could still result in some staff earning less than the living wage. Supermarkets are currently in a strong position financially, with a dramatic increase in their control over the consumer food supply market. Meanwhile, petitions have been launched calling for essential workers in a range of industries to be given ‘danger pay’ over this period. 

6.40am: Australia finally bans boot camps

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison last night ordered something resembling a full lockdown, as Australia limited gathering sizes in public spaces to two on the same day it recorded its 16th death from Covid-19. The rules are similar to New Zealand’s level four, with today seeing the closure of outdoor gyms and skate parts, and the end of outdoor fitness boot camps – though you will still be able to meet outdoors with a personal trainer, according to Morrison. “People who are over 70, people with chronic illness over 60 and indigenous people over 50 are strongly advised to stay home,” reports The Guardian. As of this morning, Australia has 3,980 cases of Covid-19.

The global total stands at 691,867, with the US, Italy, Spain and Germany the main centres now that China has largely stopped the virus’ spread. There have been 146,000 recoveries, but over 32,000 deaths, over half in Italy and Spain, each of which remains under full lockdown. Italy recorded 779 deaths yesterday, a significant fall over the day prior. This is largely the result of Lombardy, the world’s worst-hit region, seeing deaths slow to 416 from 546.

New York has been described as the next Lombardy, and has currently recorded over 53,000 cases and 782 deaths, according to the New York Times. Its mayor Bill de Blasio has warned that it has just a week of medical supplies left. The US total currently stands at 125,000, up from 85,000 just two days ago. The CDC’s Anthony Fauci said yesterday that the eventual US death toll was likely to top 100,000.

The virus’ global spread continues with the Middle East passed 50,000 total infections, the vast majority in Iran, which has over 38,000. South Korea will impose mandatory 14 day quarantines for all travellers arriving from Wednesday, while China’s recovery continues, with flights to Wuhan, and public transport within the city, resuming over the weekend.

For yesterday’s key developments within New Zealand read live updates from March 29

Updates are posted by Duncan Greive, Alex Braae, Toby Manhire, Catherine McGregor and Alice Neville

Keep going!