One Question Quiz
Finance Minister Grant Robertson at a Covid-19 media conference at Parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Finance Minister Grant Robertson at a Covid-19 media conference at Parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

SocietyMay 1, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, May 1: Three new cases; leaked poll numbers bad for National

Finance Minister Grant Robertson at a Covid-19 media conference at Parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Finance Minister Grant Robertson at a Covid-19 media conference at Parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/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 three – read The Spinoff’s giant explainer about what that means here. For 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.

6.50pm: The day in sum

There were three new confirmed cases of Covid-19 recorded in New Zealand today, and no further deaths

One of these cases was linked to overseas travel, one was linked to an existing case and the other was still under investigation

This brought the total number of confirmed and probable cases to 1,479. 85% of these cases are now recorded as recovered

Finance minister Grant Robertson announced a new interest-free loan scheme for small businesses, offering loans of up to $100,000 

A leaked internal poll conducted during level four showed Labour surging at 55% with National languishing under 30%

Victoria University backtracked on its unpopular decision to charge students accommodation fees for rooms they were unable to occupy under lockdown

Several fast food restaurants around the country were forced to close after running out of food, while staff at others raised concerns that safe physical distancing measures were not being observed.

6.10pm: Peters headlining Newshub Nation tomorrow

Fresh from a Morning Report interview in which he claimed New Zealand is “beating the crap out of coronavirus” (among other things – see 7.50am update), deputy prime minister Winston Peters has been booked for the headline slot on Three’s Newshub Nation tomorrow morning. Make sure you’re home with your contactlessly obtained coffee and brioche by 9.30am if you want to see what he has to say about his vision for New Zealand’s post-Covid future.

5.45pm: On The Spinoff today

Toby Morris’ latest Side Eye comic is an essential look at what it means to be an essential worker in and out of lockdown.

Lockdown is a lonely time for a lot of people. Holly Walker outlines how our leaders can minimise the negative effects of loneliness after Covid-19.

The cannabis legalisation bill that we’ll vote on in September’s referendum was released by the government today. This piece from Alex Braae explains what the new rules will be if the country votes yes.

Delivery services for supermarkets across the country are filling up weeks in advance, leaving immunocompromised people without options. Students up and down the country have been stepping up, through the Student Volunteer Army, to help those in need, writes Alice Webb-Liddall.

After Bauer Media shuttered all its New Zealand magazine titles last month, former Kia Ora deputy editor Shelley Howells realised it’s not just her former colleagues she’s missing.

To queue for fast food or not to queue for fast food, that is the question – or at least, it’s been one of the hot button topics on social media this week. This opinion piece from Jean Teng argues that those heaping scorn on others for enjoying a post-level-four Big Mac need to take a long hard look at themselves.

New Zealand music is one of many sectors hard hit by Covid-19. But Recorded Music NZ CEO Damian Vaughan writes that the right support can see the industry emerge stronger than ever.

House prices are about to see a sharp correction, economists are warning. The NZIER public good team explains why, and how we can handle it.

Chris McDowall’s daily Covid-19 charts and graphs provide a visual snapshot of the 13th consecutive day of single-digit case numbers.

4.15pm: National pooh-poohs interest-free business loans

National’s economic development spokesman Todd McClay says the interest-free loan scheme for SMEs announced by finance minister Grant Robertson today is “too little and risks being too late.” All the loans are going to achieve is “taking the debt that’s been accumulated over the past six weeks and moving it sideways,” he said in a statement released this afternoon. Instead, McClay thinks businesses should receive direct cash flow grants, like the ones businesses have received in Australia, “so that when we finally leave these heavy lockdown-like conditions, they can get up and running again quickly.”

BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope, on the other hand, says the interest-free loans will be helpful for businesses. “We have been advocating for interest-free support for smaller businesses whose future is threatened by the pandemic and business lockdown,” he said in a statement released earlier in the afternoon. “This is useful, relevant support to help SMEs through this crisis.”

Former finance minister Steven Joyce, meanwhile, has told the Herald (paywalled) that any further government assistance for businesses needs to come ASAP, and can’t wait until the budget is announced in two weeks.

3.15pm: Fast food staff say distancing rules practically impossible

Some of the footage of people queueing for takeaways this week has been a little worrying, but it’s got nothing on the scenes inside the kitchens of some of the country’s biggest and busiest fast food chains, according to this report from Stuff’s Ali Mau. She spoke to workers at KFC and Burger King branches around the country and found that when it comes to following physical distancing rules, there’s a pretty big gap between what the restaurants’ comms staff assure us is happening, and what the frontline staff say it’s really like. “On paper, the rules are clear”, Mau writes, but “in practice the illusion of safety has been blown away by the sheer demand for service and confusion reigns.”

Read the full story on Stuff

2.30pm: Could NZ be the world’s next big business hub?

Prepare another page in the international-media-talking-about-NZ scrapbook, this time for Simon Kuper from the (subscription-only) Financial Times, who argues in an opinion piece today that New Zealand is perfectly positioned to become the world’s next big business hub. “The new demand is for a safe haven from Covid-19,” he writes. “The ideal for many westerners would be an English-speaking democracy with a developed economy, lots of space and nice weather, though not so hot that it catches fire in summer.” That’s us! We shouldn’t just set our sights on attracting super-rich Peter Thiel types, we should be trying to attract whole businesses, Kuper reckons. “What could revive the economy is mobile entrepreneurs who bring their business with them, and money to spend,” he writes.

2.00pm: Uni backtracks on accommodation fees

Victoria University has backed down on its controversial decision to charge students accommodation fees for rooms they are unable to access during lockdown. An email sent to students today said that after receiving “a lot of feedback” they had decided to waive the accommodation fees until at least the 11th of May, when the government will make a decision on moving to alert level two. 

1.30pm: The new graph of case numbers

1.05pm: Three new cases

There are three new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, bringing the confirmed total to 1,132.

There are currently 347 probable cases, so the combined total in 1,479.

It means the daily updates of new cases over the last several weeks are 78, 85, 83, 63, 76, 58, 61, 89, 71, 82, 89, 67, 54, 50, 29, 44, 29, 18, 19, 17, 20, 15, 8, 13, 9, 9, 5, 6, 3, 5, 5, 9, 5, 3, 2, 3 and 3 again today. We’ll have a graph out shortly with these numbers.

Of the new cases, one is linked to overseas travel, one is linked to a known case and still being investigated, and one is under investigation, public health director Dr Caroline McElnay said.

No further deaths have been reported. 85% of all confirmed or probable cases are now considered to be recovered.

There are six people in hospital right now, but none are in intensive care.

Of the 16 clusters, one is now considered closed, and others are expected to be closed in the next few days.

There were 5,328 tests completed in New Zealand yesterday, bringing the overall total of completed tests to 139,898.

St Margaret’s cluster

Three Waitākere Hospital staff have tested positive for Covid-19 after caring for patients from St Margaret’s rest home.

McElnay said Waitematā DHB deputy chief executive Dr Andrew Brant had assured her they had taken all appropriate actions to minimise any potential risks to patients and staff, and that full PPE had been worn at all times.

“The source of staff contracting Covid-19 remains under investigation,” she said.

McElnay said a cluster could be officially closed when there is a 28-day period from when the last case was recorded.

Government support

The winter energy payment will double this year, which finance minister Grant Robertson said should allow low-income households to spend more on goods they need.

“We know this doubling of the winter energy payment will provide an immediate stimulus to local economies across the country,” he said.

Robertson announced the government will provide interest-free loans to small- and medium-sized businesses, to provide them with immediate cashflow that will better enable them to ride out the Covid-19 crisis.

The loan is available to businesses with 50 or fewer employees, and can be applied for from May 12.

“This is a 100% government lending scheme to support our SMEs,” said Robertson. “We’re backing these businesses because we know how important they are to our economy. We also know that our small and medium enterprises have not been able to access the support that they need from other sources.”

The scheme will provide $10,000 to each firm, and $1,800 per equivalent full-time employee. The loans have a maximum term of five years, with payments not required for two years.

Businesses will have to declare they’re a viable business, and will use the loan for core business operating costs. There will be an audit process.

The scheme has been welcomed by BusinessNZ, who had been advocating for interest-free support for smaller businesses. “This is useful, relevant support to help SMEs through this crisis,” chief executive Kirk Hope said in a release issued this afternoon.

Legislation passed yesterday mistakenly did not include the latest loan scheme, but Robertson said this was entirely a mistake and the parliamentary council had apologised. The scheme will roll out as planned.

Robertson said a universal basic income was not off the table when it came to long-term economic goals. “We are considering all our options at this time,” he said

Flu jabs

Responding to concerns around flu vaccine availability, McElnay said the ministry was bringing in more vaccines and uptake had been huge this year.

“We’ve given out more vaccines than have ever been distributed”, she said.

Robertson said there are 700,00 vaccine doses around the country that are yet to be administered, and DHB distribution to primary health organisations might need to be looked at if availability was a concern.

This year so far, 587,000 people have been vaccinated against the flu.

Breaking the rules

There have been a total of 281 breaches of alert level three rules, an increase of 96 in the past 24 hours. Robertson said 77 people have been prosecuted under level three, including 31 in the past 24 hours. 180 warnings have been issued, and there have been 24 youth referrals.

Robertson said police patrols were being increased, and more breaches were being found. “The increases in these numbers are an indication that the police are stepping up their enforcement and response, and this will continue over the weekend.”

He warned those thinking about having a raging party this weekend that they needed to cancel those plans. “Be aware that the police will be taking a particularly dim view of this activity as part of their level three enforcement activity this weekend. We know that events where there have been gatherings such as parties have been at the root of a number of our clusters,” he said.

“Any uptick in cases as a result of these parties will mean we have to stay in level three longer.”

Cannabis referendum

Robertson said he will be voting “yes” in the upcoming cannabis referendum. “This is a personal choice for New Zealanders,” he said. “While I have a moral stance on it, I’m one individual, and now’s the opportunity for New Zealanders to understand the bill.” A public education campaign for understanding the bill is forthcoming.

12.50pm: Watch live – case numbers to be updated

12.35pm: SFO to keep an eye on relief funds

In a release, the Serious Fraud Office has announced that it will keep an eye on Covid-19 relief funds.

Director Julie Read said the organisation is “aware from our international counterparts that other countries have seen a significant rise in fraudulent activity generally as a result of Covid-19. This has reflected both the opportunistic targeting of those in need and the redeployment of established criminal activity to defraud government relief programmes.

“There is no reason to believe that New Zealand would be any different in this regard.

“In times of emergency it is particularly important to ensure that every dollar of public funding reaches the intended beneficiaries not those who would fraudulently line their own pockets. New Zealand government agencies are generally well placed to restrict any rise in fraudulent activities by being alert to the risks.

“However, the SFO is under no illusion that financial crime will almost certainly increase as a result of Covid-19.”

11.55am: Who are we getting at 1pm?

Today’s press conference will be delivered by finance minister Grant Robertson, and public health director Dr Caroline McElnay.

As always, you’ll be able to watch it right here.

11.30am: Leaked polls shows National facing a disaster

Rumours of internal polling have been washing around a lot recently, but now we’ve finally got one on the record.

The NZ Herald reports that the latest internal poll by UMR (which does private polling for the Labour Party) has National on just 29% support. Labour is at 55% in the poll, NZ First is on 6%, the Greens 5%, and Act on 3%. It would mean that Labour would easily be able to form a government on its own.

In terms of the preferred PM stakes, Jacinda Ardern is on a stratospheric 65%. Simon Bridges and caucus colleague Judith Collins are both on 7%, and Winston Peters is on 3%.

The poll was conducted between April 21-27, while the country was in lockdown. Obviously, the numbers also reflect the recent upheaval caused by Covid-19, and might not last much longer beyond this poll.

However, they will put more pressure on Bridges, who in recent days has been fending off suggestions that his caucus colleagues have been unhappy with his performance.

9.50am: MediaWorks launches free advertising fund for local SMEs

Media conglomerate MediaWorks has announced $20m worth of free advertising “to support SMEs, Innovative Start-Ups and Community Organisations”.

“Research has shown that brands and businesses who invest in marketing and advertising during a downturn do considerably better when the market improves. The MediaWorks MediaFund will hopefully give New Zealand businesses a well deserved helping hand,” said commercial director Glen Kyne.

It’s a significant amount of inventory to donate, at a time when the company is under immense financial pressure. Staff across the newsroom were recently asked to take a 15% pay cut, ownership of the TV studios was sold recently, and the TV network is up for sale.

8.45am: Business lobby calls for level two

The Employers and Manufacturers Association say the country should move to level two on May 12, saying that any extra time at level three could kill businesses that have been hanging on.

In a release, CEO Brett O’Riley said “health arguments have rightly and understandably held sway in beating back this virus and businesses have complied well with Levels 4 and 3. It’s now time to trust them to continue work within Level 2 guidelines, allowing the bulk of the economy to get back underway while maintaining the required vigilance under the health guidelines.”

“Businesses are clear on the rules are and have been sticking by them. All businesses have been asked to make a plan, and we know our members are following them. There’s no reason to expect we won’t get the same levels of co-operation under Level 2,” he said.

The decision on whether to shift the alert levels will be made by May 11, and this call follows several others to move down to two. However, because of the long lag time between Covid-19 infections happening, and cases then being reported, it’s not yet clear what the health situation will be in ten days time.

8.15am: Appetite for fast-food knows no bounds

Another town has reported that their precious stocks of fast food have been wiped out since the move to level three. The Rotorua Daily Post reports that all three McDonalds branches in the city have been “eaten out of stock”, and others have reported running out of lettuce.

It follows the Southland Times reporting a disaster for the KFC in Invercargill – two stores ran out out chicken and are not expected to reopen until Saturday morning.

7.50am: Deputy PM open to changing level two rules

In a wide-ranging interview with Morning Report’s Corin Dann on RNZ this morning, deputy PM Winston Peters has responded to pleas from the tourism sector to relax domestic travel restrictions during level two. Under the current restrictions, domestic travel is limited to the strictly necessary, which tourism operators say would mean there is little point in reopening. Peters said work was being done on that recommendation. “Of course the government’s looking carefully to see what can be done… whether the criteria can be changed. We’ve got an open mind on that.”

Peters remained optimistic about the idea of a travel bubble including Australia, and potentially the whole region. “We could expand it to parts of the Pacific – as long as we can guarantee that we’re safe.”

When asked whether the trans-Tasman bubble could form before domestic travel rules were relaxed, he said “we will not have one rule for people from offshore, and another for New Zealanders. We’ll have one rule.”

He also said a lot of classic Winston stuff, including:

– Claiming that New Zealand is “beating the crap out of coronavirus”.
Describing the virus as “an invader from offshore”.
– Saying that no one was obliged to stop at community checkpoints: “I would have issue if they were a vigilante posse breaching the law. I would be utterly opposed to it.
– Continuing NZ First’s longstanding policy of demanding Air NZ fly where they say it should fly. “That money put in by the New Zealand taxpayer is not there for free.”

7.15am: The Bulletin wrap of the morning’s key NZ news stories

Want this in your inbox? Sign up for The Spinoff’s newsletters here

Before this, Queenstown was booming, to the point where overtourism was a frequent complaint, and there were plans for big expansions in housing and airport capacity. It used to see more than 30 tourists a year for every resident. Now the future for the area is deeply uncertain.

The quickest way of showing exactly how much things have shifted is the rental property market. Stuff’s Debbie Jamieson reports a flood of new listings have already hit the market, and a big dip in property values is likely to follow. Many owners are heavily mortgaged after buying into an inflated market. Some will also be AirBnbs, which now have little prospect of regular customers. And some tenants appear to be doing runners – we don’t know exactly how many, but one informed correspondent passed on an estimate that it could be as high as 20%.

The fundamental problem is that the economic base of the place was tourism, and that has been shattered. RNZ reports that businesses all over Queenstown are now struggling with commercial rent, and when the wage subsidy runs out further redundancies are all but certain. Many will no doubt take up whatever government support is offered to go dormant, rather than try and stay afloat until they can reopen. But even in those instances, will that time ever actually arrive? To give you a sense of how far away that could be, right now the local MP Hamish Walker is advocating for flights to return to Queenstown airport – it has been totally removed from Air NZ’s schedule.

Some hoteliers are optimistic that a long term recovery could take place, reports Mountain Scene’s Philip Chandler. The short-term is obviously a write-off for them as well, and even with a ski season coming up, domestic tourism is unlikely to come close to replacing international visitors. There is some hope that the borders will gradually be reopened to some of the traditional visitor markets, like Australia and Korea. As Crux reports, mayor Jim Boult is hopeful of getting some taxpayer funding for “shovel-ready” projects. And Mountain Scene has a story on one of those potential projects – a $12 million dollar film studio about 30kms out of town which would aim to attract international projects.

But for many of the workers in the tourism and hospitality industries, serious problems loom. Newsroom’s Dileepa Fonseka reported on the situation for suddenly unemployed migrant workers, who are facing what is being described as a “humanitarian crisis”. Those people are currently being supported primarily by Civil Defence, and there are calls for MSD to step in and make an emergency benefit available.

To put it bluntly, Queenstown needs something other than tourism to survive. A range of ideas for what could happen instead have been gathered up by Crux, as part of Project Phoenix – an initiative aiming “to reduce our exposure to mass tourism as a single source of community income and jobs.” The people who made Queenstown what it was until Covid-19 are nothing if not entrepreneurial, but they’re going to need a lot of luck and support too to get through.

Just quickly, a message from our editor Toby Manhire:

“Here at The Spinoff, members’ support is more important than ever as the Covid-19 crisis lays waste to large chunks of our commercial work. It’s a tight time for everyone, of course, but if you’re able to, please consider joining Spinoff Members to help us stay afloat and keep producing work by the likes of Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, whose collaborations have had a real impact in New Zealand and around the world.”

Recent statements from foreign minister Winston Peters suggest he’s not necessarily on the same page as the trade minister. That was the subject of this crunchy Newstalk ZB interview with the trade minister David Parker, who indicated that there actually was quite a bit of common ground between the two politicians. For example, he stressed that both were concerned about an over-reliance on China as an export market, with Parker raising what happened to the rock lobster industry this year as a reason why.

Meanwhile, exports over March were at record-high levels this year, led by kiwifruit and other food prices being high, reports Interest. Some markets were down, particularly wood and overall exports to China. However, the figures show exports to the US, EU and Japan were all up compared to March last year

You simply must read the latest edition of The Side Eye by Toby Morris. It catches up with Tasia, a supermarket worker who we met in an editorial cartoon several years ago, and charts how her life has changed since her job was deemed essential. If there’s one thing you should take away from it, it is that supermarket workers were essential before the pandemic, they’ve been essential during the pandemic, and they’ll be essential after it all as well.

Urgent legislation to open up billions of dollars for small business loans has been introduced by the government. More details on the scheme will be announced today. Our live blog from yesterday also reports that Reserve Bank rules on lending restrictions (LVRs) have been scrapped for the next 12 months. Those updates are just two of many in what was a fairly full day of news.

New Zealand’s decriminalisation of prostitution has meant sex workers have not been as badly hit by lockdown rules compared to other countries. The Guardian reports that like any other workers or sole traders who have lost income, sex workers have been able to claim the wage subsidy, meaning that many actually have been able to afford to stop working. There is an acknowledgement in the story that such an experience won’t be universal. However, the decriminalised status is seen by researchers as a major advantage in the effective provision of assistance.

A story for those of you who follow issues like central bank independence: Interest’s Jenée Tibshraeny has reported on speculation that the Reserve Bank will step up the way it is funding the government at the moment, through buying bonds directly from Treasury. The effect of that would be to more closely bind two institutions together, that in recent years have had much more distance.

We had a story above about a South Island region where things are looking bleak, but here’s a place where things are looking up a bit more. The Spinoff’s Michael Andrew has reported on the mood of businesses in Golden Bay, up the top of the South Island. What seems to be getting the hospitality industry through there is community goodwill – right now people are reportedly being active in their support for the outlets they liked before the lockdown.

A review of freedom camping bylaws for the Tasman District is being kicked up to the District Council, reports Stuff, with a decision likely to be made before next summer. A big impetus for this has come from Golden Bay locals, whose community board recently called for a local ban.

6.45am: US joblessness continues to surge

For six straight weeks US unemployment claims have surged, each one far beyond a decades-old record which stood until March of 2020. This week’s tally is 3.8m, taking the six week total to 30.3m. The Washington Post reports economists as estimating the US national unemployment rate as currently between 15%-20%, not far from the Great Depression’s peak of 25%. Yet even the the 30m figure is unlikely to be a true reflection of the scale of the problem, as states have spent years making benefits hard to access and sustain.

This New York Times story documents the barriers to filing which existed before Covid-19, and how the system is buckling under the volume of claims. Some states are trying to wind back those hurdles, but are doing so under unprecedented load, and it’s thought likely that millions of eligible jobless have been unable to access benefits.

This paragraph from the Times story sums up the scale of the issue:

“In a time when pretty much everybody who’s applying should be eligible, we’re working with a system that got us to a 26% recipiency rate,” said Steve Gray, the director of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency. That means Michigan was giving aid to one in four unemployed workers in 2019, following restrictions adopted by the Michigan legislature after the Great Recession. That system, Mr. Gray said, was “built to assume that you’re guilty and make you prove that you’re innocent.”

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports the WHO as warning that the outbreak continues to grow across Africa. There are 34,000 confirmed cases across the continent, though it’s thought that number significantly underestimates the true count – a statement true in almost all nations with a severe outbreak. Johns Hopkins has the worldwide tally of cases at 3.25m, with 230,000 deaths attributed to the virus.

6.30am: Yesterday’s key stories

New Zealand recorded three new cases of Covid-19. There were no new deaths.

Around 2% of year 1 to 10 school students attended school on Wednesday, and around 4% at ECE, it was announced.

Business confidence is bleak across the board, according to the ANZ Business Outlook survey for April 2020

The Reserve Bank announced it has scrapped LVR lending restrictions for at least the next 12 months

Legislation releasing more than $3bn in loans to assist small-to-medium businesses was passed under urgency. The loans will be administered by Inland Revenue and details will be announced today.

The New Zealand International Film Festival At Home – Online was announced, a streaming version of the annual film festival which will run from July 24 to August 2.

Read all the key stories in yesterday’s live updates

Keep going!