National MP for Clutha Hamish Walker (Photo: RNZ)
National MP for Clutha Hamish Walker (Photo: RNZ)

SocietyJuly 7, 2020

Live updates, July 7: National MP admits leaking Covid-19 data to media

National MP for Clutha Hamish Walker (Photo: RNZ)
National MP for Clutha Hamish Walker (Photo: RNZ)

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 one – read about what that means here. For official government advice, see here.

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7.40pm: The day in sum

National MP Hamish Walker admitted he had leaked personal details of Covid-19 patients to the media, and party insider Michell Boag admitted she had been the source. Both apologised for their actions.

There were two new cases of Covid-19 in managed isolation.

Air NZ has put a temporary hold on new international bookings to NZ, and will allow the government to manage in-flow to the country to ensure all arrivals can be placed in managed isolation facilities.

Health minister Chris Hipkins said he was unhappy with the amount of testing in the community, and was investigating why it had been allowed to fall to less than half the recommended daily levels.

Melbourne is to return to lockdown on Wednesday at midnight, and will remain there for six weeks.

People in New Zealand with work visas due to expire by the end of 2020 will have their visas extended by six months, the immigration minister announced.

The government launched a 10-year primary sector plan aimed at creating jobs and boosting exports earnings by $44bn, while also protecting the environment.

A decision on the Port of Auckland’s proposed move has been postponed until after the election, the government said.

The Islamic Women’s Council said it had “continually forewarned” the government about the risks the Muslim community faced prior to last year’s mosque shootings, but its warnings were repeatedly ignored.

7.10pm: Melbourne under lockdown again for six weeks

Metropolitan Melbourne is to return to lockdown from midnight tomorrow, and will remain under level three rules for the next six weeks. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said the new restrictions were the result of the “unacceptably” high number of new cases in Melbourne, which yesterday experienced its highest number of new cases since the pandemic began. The lockdown order also applies to the Mitchell shire located north of the city.

From Thursday until late August, people will only be allowed to leave the house for to buy groceries and supplies; for work or education if it can’t be done from home; for medical care; or to exercise close to home.

6.00pm: National MP Hamish Walker admits Covid-19 data leak

The National MP for Clutha-Southland has issued a statement admitting passing the details of Covid-19 patients to media, and apologised to all those involved.

Walker said he leaked the details to “expose the government’s shortcomings” and he has been advised that he has not committed a criminal offence by doing so. However National leader Todd Muller has stripped him of his portfolios as a result.

The details were leaked to him by former party president Michelle Boag, who acquired them through her role as acting CEO of the Auckland Helicopter Rescue Trust. In a separate statement, Boag said it had been a “massive error of judgement” and she had resigned from her CEO role.

Read the full story here

5.00pm: Temporary work visas extended

The government is extending temporary work visas for migrants already in New Zealand, immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway has announced. The short-term changes, which will affect 16,500 workers, will extend temporary work visas due to expire by the end of 2020 by six months.

“This will provide some immediate relief and certainty for migrants and employers in the short term while they recover from the impact of Covid-19 and adjust to the changing labour market conditions where more New Zealanders will be available for work,” said Lees-Galloway in a press release.

The 12-month stand-down period, meanwhile, which meant that those who had held temporary work visas for three consecutive had to leave New Zealand for 12 months before they could apply for another lower-skilled visa, has been shifted by six months to February 2021, meaning those migrant workers who were going to have to leave this year could now stay for the duration of the extension. This will benefit around 600 lower-skilled visa holders, said Lees-Galloway.

4.00pm: Today’s Covid-19 data, charted

2.15pm: Ardern responds to NZ First/Brexit ‘bad boy’ reports, Air NZ booking freeze

Speaking to reporters this afternoon, Jacinda Ardern was asked about the prospect of “mischief, mayhem and geurilla warfare” coming to New Zealand politics in the form of Brexiteers campaigning on behalf of NZ First. Ardern was unfazed. “Ultimately we’ll all campaign in our own way. I wouldn’t necessarily make an assumption that someone offshore who’s touting for work will ultimately do what they claim.”

She was also asked about an outlandish claim made by Arron Banks, one of the self-described “bad boys of Brexit” and the millionaire bankroller of the Brexit group Leave.EU, that she is being groomed for a larger role at a supra-national organisation. Speaking at today’s primary sector plan launch (see 2.00pm update), Ardern said she was not, while Stuart Nash interjected with “I hope not”.

On the question of the border being temporarily closed to New Zealanders wanting to return who hadn’t already booked, Ardern argued that it didn’t create any issues with the Bill of Rights. “Keep in mind, noone’s being stopped from coming home. There’s just a spreading over the period in which people are. So no, because nobody is being blocked from coming into New Zealand.”

She said it wasn’t a cabinet decision as such, but had been a call made between minister Megan Woods and Air NZ. “We are seeing an increase in New Zealanders wanting to come home,” said Ardern, noting that New South Wales had also put a cap on the arrivals coming in, and said there was a need to make sure that arrivals could be managed properly “in a highly volatile situation.” She said the strategy was a way to ensure that there wasn’t a direct cap.

There was no indication for exactly how long the restrictions will be in place, and Ardern reiterated that New Zealanders already booked would still be able to return, but said it would be reassessed “in a couple of weeks”.

2.00pm: Government launches ambitious primary sector roadmap

The government has launched a 10-year primary sector plan today to create jobs and boost export earnings by $44bn, while also protecting the environment. The announcement took place in Jacinda Ardern’s Mt Albert electorate, and was fronted by the prime minister, agriculture minister Damian O’Connor and fisheries minister Stuart Nash.

They said one of the main ways of achieving the plan’s aims would be through using New Zealand’s international brand to target high-end markets. Ardern said her government and the primary sector had the same goals, in that they both wanted to leverage New Zealand’s “competitive advantage” and position on the world stage to drive economic recovery. To support that, $100m from the Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures fund will be accelerated.

O’Connor described the goal of the roadmap as “turning quality raw materials into quality high value products”. Nash built on that theme by talking about how the fishing industry had got better at using byproducts from fish, such as extracting collagen for skincare products from hoki.

Nash also opened his speech with a wry joke, asking the dignitaries from MPI and primary sector organisations “are we recording?” before he began – a reference to a recent story in which a tape of him bagging some in the fishing industry was leaked.

National’s David Bennett was also there, and said the roadmap was “a joke” and “just not achievable.”

“On the one side, they want $44 billion increase in exports from our primary sector, and on the other side they’re saying the primary sector has to achieve higher environmental targets than are achievable.”

1.30pm: Testing levels not high enough, says minister

The government is unhappy with the current level of testing in the community, says health minister Chris Hipkins. “The advice I’ve had from the director general of health is that testing rates of around 4000 day would give us sufficient confidence that if there was any Covid-19 in the community, it would be picked up.”

“We’ve seen that decline in recent days, and I’m not going to second guess the clinical guidance that has been issued, but I am going to be very clear that the level of testing at its current rates isn’t meeting the government’s expectations.”

The number of tests carried out yesterday was 1641.

Hipkins said that the government relies on clinicians and those overseeing the testing system to make the judgement on how the testing should take place and who should receive it. “But we’ve been very clear that based on their advice, we want to see a higher rate of testing to ensure that New Zealanders can have confidence that there is no community transmission of Covid-19. I don’t want any New Zealander to think that the reason we’re not seeing Covid-19 in the community is that we’re not testing for it.”

He said he would be meeting with those in charge of the testing system on Thursday to get to the bottom of the issue.

1.00pm: Two new cases of Covid-19, both returnees

There are two new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, the minister of health, Chris Hipkins, has announced. The new cases are from the same family: a woman in her 20s and a woman in her 30s, both of whom arrived in New Zealand on a repatriation flight from Afghanistan on July 2 and are staying at the Sudima Hotel in Christchurch. They were diagnosed after routine testing on day three of their managed isolation stay, Hipkins said.

New Zealand’s total number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 is now 1,186, Hipkins said. Two people are now considered to have recovered from Covid-19, which means there are currently 22 active cases in New Zealand, all in managed isolation or quarantine. Yesterday labs processed 1,641 Covid-19 tests, bringing the total to date to 416,924. There is now no one in New Zealand in hospital with Covid-19, after the person who had been in Auckland City Hospital was discharged back to the quarantine facility.

12.30pm: Hipkins to front media conference at 1pm

While his predecessor was rarely seen fronting Covid-19 press conferences, Chris Hipkins, who replaced David Clark as minister of health after the latter stepped down last week, is doing just that at 1pm. We’ll bring you a live stream and all the details here.

11.00am: Port of Auckland decision postponed until after election

Following the release of a study that concluded the economic costs of relocating the Port of Auckland would outweigh the benefits, the government has postponed a decision on the move until after the election.

New Zealand First has been a strong proponent of moving the port’s freight operations to Northland and made a close look at the proposal a part of its coalition agreement with Labour. Along with delaying the decision, the report blew holes in NZ First’s desire to move the port north. Yesterday, NZ First’s Jenny Marcroft made the relocation of the port the central theme of her campaign pitch for a run in central Auckland. “A modern world-class coastal city uses the waterfront as a showcase. However, the entrance to the city of sails is more like a holding pen for used cars and shipping containers,” she said in a statement.

Despite NZ First’s enthusiasm for the project, the report from the consultancy group Sapere looked at five relocation options and concluded none of them make economic sense. It found that engineering and consenting would be difficult, while the cost would outweigh the benefit. The report concluded that the current facility in Auckland has enough capacity for three decades of operations.

The report also suggests that Manukau harbour south of the city would be the best option for a move. A government working group had previously identified Northport as its preferred candidate.

Much like other high-profile decisions that have fallen off the cabinet table in recent weeks, including the construction of light rail in Auckland, the port’s move will now be decided by the government in office after September. Polls show NZ First could lose all of its seats. “That decision needs to be informed by policy analysis that is still to be completed. As a result it will be up to a future government to determine a preferred location,” transport minister Phil Twyford said in a statement.

10.45am: Government was warned of risks to Muslim community before March 15

The government was repeatedly warned of a potential attack on New Zealand’s Muslim community in the lead-up to last year’s mosque shootings, the royal commission of inquiry into the attacks has heard – including being told of threats mentioning the date of March 15, 2019. 

The Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand this morning made public the submission it presented to the inquiry. “There were repeated major public service delivery failures in relation to government dealings with and responsibilities towards the Muslim community in Aotearoa New Zealand,” said Frances Joychild, QC, who represented IWCNZ before the commission. “It is likely that, but for the failures (particularly of the security services and police), the horrific events of March 15, 2019, might not have occurred.”

IWCNZ “continually forewarned” the NZ government about the risks the Muslim community faced and the council’s warnings were ignored, says the group, which has submitted “extensive” evidence to the commission of inquiry. “There were threats for the date of March 15, 2019 and community leaders raised these with the authorities. If heeded, there would have been support in front of the Christchurch mosques on that day to prevent the attacks.”

The ICWNZ is currently holding a press conference to discuss its submission to the royal commission of inquiry, and The Spinoff will bring you more details soon.

9.00am: Government, Air NZ make agreement on arrival flow

For those wanting to come back to New Zealand but don’t currently have a booking, they might be out of luck for the foreseeable future.

An agreement has been made to manage bookings on flights back to NZ in the short term, according to a release from minister Megan Woods, who is responsible for managed isolation and quarantine facilities.

“Last week Air Commodore Darryn Webb and I met with Air New Zealand’s Chief Executive Greg Foran to discuss safe and robust ways to jointly manage the big growth in New Zealanders coming home,” Megan Woods said.

“Air New Zealand has agreed to put a temporary hold on new bookings in the short term, as well as looking at aligning daily arrivals with the capacity available at managed isolation facilities.

“People who have already booked flights with Air New Zealand will still be able to enter New Zealand subject to availability of quarantine space.”

There are currently nearly 6000 people in managed isolation facilities, and many more New Zealanders are looking to get home as the pandemic gets worse overseas, said Woods.

“Our number one priority is stopping the virus at the border, so everyone must to go into quarantine or managed isolation. The Government is also talking to other airlines about managing flows.

“The last thing we need are hastily set up facilities to meet demand, so we must have a manageable number of fit-for-purpose, safe facilities that do the job of stopping COVID at the border,” Megan Woods said.

All arrivals are required to spend 14 days in an approved managed isolation facility, with those who test positive for Covid-19 moved to quarantine facilities.

8.15am: Should Queenstown be a quarantine destination?

Discussions will take place today at the Southern DHB today about whether Queenstown is a viable quarantine destination for arrivals into the country, reports Radio NZ.

There are a lot of potentially suitable hotels in the region, and they could really do with a bit of business right now.

However, there are also concerns that the region’s medical facilities wouldn’t be up to the task of managing a heavy case load, if that were to occur. It’s a possibility that has to be considered with quarantine locations, as there could be a spike with multiple patients needing hospitalisation at the same time.

Becoming a quarantine location can also be unpopular with both residents and local MPs – in recent weeks both Rotorua MP Todd McClay and Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker have issued complaints about the possibility.

7.40am: Quick investigation coming into active case leaks

The investigation into the probable leak of active Covid-19 case data will be quick, says State Services minister Chris Hipkins. One News reports that Michael Heron QC has been tasked with undertaking the investigation, and is expected to report back by the end of the month. Heron will have powers to get documents and put people under oath, and will be asked to identify if anything should be changed to prevent future information breaches.

7.30am: Key stories from today’s edition of The Bulletin:

There are some real problems looming for temporary visa holders and their employers, with thousands set to expire all once, reports Nona Pelletier for Radio NZ. Automatic extensions were granted until September 25 for those expiring between 2 April and 9 July, but at the moment they aren’t being granted beyond that unless Immigration NZ is absolutely sure the jobs can’t be filled by New Zealanders. It’s especially worrying for the dairy industry, which is generally pretty busy around that time of year, and trained workers are hard to come by.

Some non-residents argue that they’ve been sold out for political reasons – and it’s hard to argue with that assessment right now. Newsroom’s Dileepa Fonsecka had a story recently about the position some individuals are in on temporary visas – in one person’s case, they’ve been here more than five years, paid their taxes and all that – and now they’re facing a massive backlog in getting residency. Federica Benedet said it was “not fair at all”, and “after five years and half you still feel like you’re just temporary here and you can’t have any certainty.” Meanwhile, as Fair Go reports, there are even some temporary visa holders who got stuck overseas after ill-timed trips, and it doesn’t look likely they’ll be able to come back in any time soon.

Is there a fair point in the political decision to prioritise NZ citizens and residents? Perhaps – as Stuff reported recently, more than 200,000 NZers are now on either the Jobseeker benefit or the Covid-19 Income Relief Payment. With the second round of the wage subsidy coming to an end in September, it is still unknown just how many people will need a job. However, right now at least there are more people leaving the country than arriving, according to Interest.

Despite strong increases in the number of state houses being built, the waitlist has ballooned out even further, reports Stuff’s Henry Cooke. It is likely that the previously mentioned spike in unemployment over the last few months is partly to blame as well, and grants for emergency motel stays have also gone up a lot too.

Inevitably, this is also a political question, so here are the numbers: There are now almost 18,000 households on the waitlist, up from 5,844 when the government was elected. Over that same period, 3,062 new homes have been built, compared to 2,670 built over the nine years National was in office. The government says the massive increase is partly because of a more welcoming approach to those in need, while National says it shows the government has failed to keep pace with demand.

A ban on sales of NZ seafood in the US could be close, reports Farah Hancock for Newsroom. That’s because of court action brought by Sea Shepherd, on the grounds of failing to protect Māui dolphins. The judge hearing the case has form as well, having previously granted a preliminary injunction banning seafood imports from the area in Mexico – that case related to a creature called the vaquita porpoise. Meanwhile, some of the larger fishing operators in New Zealand have declared a new willingness to get cameras on board boats, reports Radio NZ.

An unusual form of industrial dispute is taking place in nursing at the moment, reports Stuff’s Libby Wilson. There’s a pay gap within the profession, with practice nurses making less than their DHB employed counterparts once they reach a certain level of experience. What makes it unusual is that employers want to offer equal pay – it’s just they don’t have the government funding to do so. A stop-work meeting will be taking place on July 23 for two hours.

Hundreds of businesses are being audited after claiming the wage subsidy, reports One News. They’re the ones that have faced complaints for claiming it under false pretences, and for the really egregious breaches criminal charges are possible. The names of businesses being audited aren’t part of the story, for obvious privacy reasons. However, $200 million has now been repaid, which suggests that plenty of organisations that didn’t need it in the end have done the right thing.

7.30am: Yesterday’s key stories

One new case of Covid-19, a man in his 20s who arrived from London, was detected in quarantine.

An inquiry was launched into the leak of private Covid-19 case data, with criminal charges possible if found to be intentional.

Employers sought answers from the government over what will happen when workers’ temporary visas expire date in September, warning of potential ‘disaster’ without a plan in place.

Victoria and New South Wales announced they are closing the interstate border as Covid-19 cases continued to rise in Victoria.

The Orange Guy from the Electoral Commission ad campaigns made a comeback, and he has a dog now.

Read yesterday’s live updates here

Keep going!