An alleyway in Japan (Photo: Aleksandar Pasaric/Pexels)
An alleyway in Japan (Photo: Aleksandar Pasaric/Pexels)

SocietyJune 10, 2020

Live updates, June 10: Government deficit $12.8bn, 19th day of no Covid-19 cases

An alleyway in Japan (Photo: Aleksandar Pasaric/Pexels)
An alleyway in Japan (Photo: Aleksandar Pasaric/Pexels)

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.

The Spinoff’s coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak is made possible thanks to donations from Spinoff Members. To support this work, join The Spinoff Members here.

5.45pm: The day in review

The Ministry of Health announced no new cases of Covid-19 for the 19th day in a row, and said an update to the Covid Tracer app was about to be released.

The government’s financial statements revealed a $12.8bn deficit, which was less than forecast.

Air New Zealand, which is under fire for refusing to refund people for cancelled flights, announced it had given 15,000 refunds for compassionate reasons.

Tourism minister Kelvin Davis has announced a $1.5 million recovery package for Whale Watch Kaikōura.

Immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway said the government was working on how to get 10,000 migrant residents of New Zealand home.

Auckland Emergency Management announced it was closing its Covid-19 welfare helpline and distribution centre at Spark Arena.

New research suggested nearly a third of New Zealanders were growing more sceptical of vaccination.

A report into the state of New Zealand’s hospitals showed many facilities were in “poor or very poor” shape.

The extension to the wage subsidy scheme kicked in today, with finance minister Grant Robertson saying there would be no further extensions after it ends on August 9.

A private funeral for George Floyd, the African American man whose death at the hands of white police sparked a global movement, was held in Houston, Texas.

5.00pm: Judith Collins doesn’t think she said fuck but if she did that’s the tea

A strangely comforting political story to end the day: someone said “fuck’s sake” in a Zoom-cast select committee this morning. (The quote is f— or f**k, according to news reports, but we think the word is fuck, and we also think you will cope with us spelling it out.)

The NZ Herald launched a tongue-in-cheek investigation into the sweary bit which came when Labour MP Kiri Allan was congratulating the police commissioner for formally terminating the idea of armed response teams. National MP Judith Collins, who was struggling with the tech this morning, was widely named as the culprit. But: “The Herald analysed the video and audio in depth and has concluded the evidence was inconclusive. The voice sounds like a man’s and Zoom didn’t flick to Collins like it did with her other mutterings.”

Could it be Labour MP Duncan Webb instead? He’s yet to respond to Herald inquiries.

In a Newshub story, Collins is quoted as follows: “I tipped some tea on myself … I don’t think I swore … I don’t think I said it. Anyway, I was tipping tea on myself”.

3.15pm: Air NZ to resume flights to Japan

Air New Zealand will resume passenger flights to Japan later this month, reports the Herald. The Auckland-Narita route hasn’t been operating since March 30, but the service will resume once a week on June 25. Pre-Covid, there were 10 flights a week. People travelling on these services will be subject to government border controls – at present, New Zealand citizens and residents are allowed into this country but are subject to a 14-day quarantine or mandatory isolation period. Japan has a similar entry ban for foreigners, but is reportedly considering easing it for several countries with low infection rates, including New Zealand.

3.00pm: Calls grow for NZ-Cook Islands travel bubble

Business leaders in the Cook Islands are calling on the New Zealand government to prioritise a shared travel bubble. With the Cooks not having had a single case of Covid-19, and New Zealand appearing to have successfully stamped out the virus, it should be safe to travel between the two countries without the need for quarantine or mandatory isolation, says the Cook Islands Private Sector Taskforce, which was set up by the country’s Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with the Cook Islands Tourism Council in the wake of Covid-19 travel restrictions. The Cook Islands economy relies on tourism from New Zealand, and a recent survey revealed businesses were projecting a 90% drop in revenue from the economic impact of Covid travel restrictions, according to a media release from the taskforce.

In a statement, taskforce chair Fletcher Melvin said the Cook Islands wanted to avoid a repeat of the 1996 economic collapse, when thousands of Cook Islanders headed to New Zealand looking for work. Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens. “The hard truth is that if this drags on much longer, we’ll be coming to you for help one way or the other. Our community wants a hand, not a hand-out – we’d much rather have New Zealand tourism dollars than its aid money,” he said. Former prime minister Helen Clark has tweeted her support for Pacific Islands inclusion in a trans-Tasman bubble, and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield has said there are “benefits both ways for us to be looking at opening up a bubble with a number of Pacific Islands”.

2.30pm: Bernie Sanders praises NZ’s Covid-19 response

In the latest instalment of “someone famous from overseas says something nice about New Zealand”, US senator and almost-Democratic-presidential-candidate Bernie Sanders has congratulated us for stamping out Covid-19. In a post on Facebook, Sanders shared a New York Times story about New Zealand reaching zero active cases and moving to alert level one. “Congratulations to New Zealand. They listened to science, acted boldly, and had leadership they could trust,” Sanders wrote, adding, “In the US, Trump downplayed the crisis, attacked science and continues to lie. They saved lives. We lost lives.”

2.10pm: Air NZ issues correction as refunds averaging $20m per week, not $22m per day

Air New Zealand has corrected a figure its chief revenue officer gave in an on-air interview this morning: the refunds being issued by the airline for cancelled flights are averaging $20 million a week, much less than Cam Wallace said on the AM Show this morning.

“Our total refunds come to $22 million a day,” Wallace said on the show, but an Air NZ spokesperson has since told Stuff this was a “slip of the tongue on air” and the figure was actually $20 million a week. The airline has refunded about 15,000 customers where it’s legally entitled to or for compassionate reasons, Wallace said this morning, after coming under fire for refusing to issue refunds to most customers.

1.50pm: Kiwibank report sees potential opportunities in Covid-19 crisis

A Kiwibank report into how the coronavirus pandemic will change New Zealand’s economic landscape presents a cautiously optimistic outlook. While the current recession is still likely to be the deepest since the early 1990s, it won’t be as severe as some worst-case economic scenarios had suggested, with Kiwibank’s own electronic card transactions data showing a surprisingly quick rebound in spending post lockdown. The report, by senior economist Jeremy Couchman, says disruption to some industries has been accelerated by a forced change in consumer behaviour, which presents opportunities as well as challenges – online retail will accelerate, as will the adoption of productivity-enhancing technologies, such as AI and automation.

1.00pm: No new cases of Covid-19 for 19th day in a row, update to Covid Tracer app coming tonight

It is now 19 days since the last new Covid-19 case was reported in New Zealand, and again there are no active cases, according to an update from the Ministry of Health. The combined total of confirmed and probable cases remains at 1,504, with the number of recovered cases 1,482.

There are no additional deaths to report, and no one is in hospital for Covid-19. Yesterday, 2,631 tests were completed, bringing the total to date to 298,532.

Another cluster has closed since yesterday – an Auckland community cluster – which brings the total to nine.

The Ministry of Health has also announced that an update to the government’s NZ Covid Tracer app will be released this evening. It will allow users to choose to be notified if they’ve visited a venue at the same time as someone who subsequently developed Covid-19 and to send their digital diary to contact tracers if required, and there will be a vibrate mode when scanning QR codes to assist those who are visually impaired.

For those who already have the app, it will automatically update to include these features unless updates have been disabled on the user’s phone. There have now been 541,000 registrations on the app, an increase of 6,000 since this time yesterday. The number of posters created by businesses is now 45,297, and the total number of poster scans to date is 816,612.

12.30pm: Government’s financial statements reveal $12.8bn deficit

Treasury has released the government’s financial statements for the 10 months to April 30, which show its operating deficit before gains and losses was $629m less than forecast – though still a massive $12.8bn, reports Stuff. Debt levels are climbing at $10bn a month, reports the Herald.

In a statement, finance minister Grant Robertson credited a strong economic position heading into the alert level four lockdown for the better-than-forecast deficit, while in another statement, National’s finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said “debt-fuelled government spending on an industrial scale on its own is not an economic plan”.

12.20pm: No more 1pm briefings

Farewell, Dr Bloomfield: with 18 consecutive days of no new cases of Covid-19 and the last remaining active case recovering, the Ministry of Health says there are no further 1pm live media briefings scheduled. Updates will be sent out by email around 1pm instead, and we’ll bring you the contents of today’s missive as soon as we receive it.

12.00pm: Kaikōura whale watch business receives boost from government

Tourism minister Kelvin Davis has announced a $1.5 million recovery package for Whale Watch Kaikōura during a visit to the region with the prime minister today. Describing the company as an “iconic tourism business”, Davis said up to $1.5m had been provided out of the Strategic Tourism Assets Protection Programme, which is the key feature of the $400 million Tourism Sector Recovery Plan.

“By safeguarding this key destination tourism asset, we are also providing vital support to the Kaikōura community itself,” said Davis in a statement. 

Applications for the Strategic Tourism Assets Protection Programme close on June 18. Tourism operators have criticised the government’s response to their beleaguered industry’s woes, calling the $400m announced in last month’s budget a “drop in the ocean”.

11.45am: Air NZ refunds 15,000 customers, apologises for poor communication

Air New Zealand, which is under fire for refusing to refund people for cancelled flights, has given 15,000 refunds for compassionate reasons, its chief revenue officer Cam Wallace told Newshub’s AM Show this morning. “We’ve refunded about 15,000 individual cases. In some markets like the US we are obliged to give refunds,” Wallace said, adding that the refunds averaged out at $22 million a day. “We have a compassionate policy so if people ring the contact centre, and they talk to us about their unique financial hardship they will get their money back.”

Yesterday, Consumer NZ called for law changes to be fast-tracked after Air New Zealand continued to refuse to give refunds to the vast majority of customers, reports Stuff. Wallace apologised on the AM Show, saying, “What we haven’t got right is our communication, and we’re truly sorry about that.” The airline received a $900 million lifeline from the government and $70 million in wage subsidies after seeing a massive decline in revenue resulting from the Covid-19 crisis. It has cut more than 4,000 jobs, and has said there may be more.

11.30am: Government working on how 10,000 migrants can return to NZ

After yesterday’s decision to allow partners and children separated from their New Zealand-resident relatives to enter the country without needing to be accompanied by them, immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway says the government is looking at how up to 10,000 immigrants can return, but they may need to reconsider their employment. Lees-Galloway told Nine to Noon host Kathryn Ryan the government was working on how immigration criteria could be opened up, but said migrant workers had been filling gaps in the labour market that may no longer exist.

“There is a group of people who hold temporary visas but who have made lives here in New Zealand and are currently unable to travel to New Zealand. That’s the next group of people that we’re working on policy around, to support and facilitate their travel back to New Zealand, and we estimate that there’s probably around 10,000 people who you would consider ordinarily resident in New Zealand who are unable to travel here at the moment.”

The capacity to isolate new arrivals for a fortnight in managed facilities or quarantine was limited to 3,200 places, he said, which translated to 250 people a day, and most of those places were being taken by citizens and residents. He spoke about how the government might prioritise those returning, including their work situation. “We’re working through exactly what the policy will look like, and other things that will be taken into consideration such as how long have you been in New Zealand, do you have children here, were your children going to school here before the pandemic hit?

“There will be a variety of factors, but certainly the work situation – and I think this is only reasonable, it’s only fair to the migrant workers themselves that we’re upfront about this and it’s only fair to New Zealanders that we use the immigration system in the fashion that it should be used, which is to fill genuine gaps.”

Read the full story on RNZ

11.10am: Auckland scales back Covid-19 response after 56,000 food boxes sent out

In the week we marked zero active cases and moved to alert level one, Auckland Emergency Management is scaling back its response to Covid-19. A dedicated welfare helpline, which has received almost 35,000 calls since being set up in March, will be switched off on Friday, and the welfare distribution centre operating out of Spark Arena will close.

Around 56,000 boxes of food have been delivered to more than 16,400 households across the region, according to a statement from the council. The welfare team will still be available via the council’s customer service number, 09 301 0101, for anyone requiring ongoing assistance.

10.30am: Trump tweets conspiracy theory about 75-year-old pushed over by police

The US president has suggested the 75-year-old man currently in hospital recovering from a head injury received when he was pushed over by police in Buffalo, New York last week is a “provocateur” from the anti-fascist Antifa movement, and the incident was a “set-up”. Two police officers have been charged with assault after a video of the incident, in which they are seen shoving Martin Gugino to the ground, went viral online amid two weeks of global Black Lives Matters protests in the wake of the killing of black man George Floyd by white police officers. Trump’s claims have been declared false and have prompted a swift backlash from politicians across the spectrum, reports Politico.

9.15am: Anti-vaxx sentiment growing in NZ, study finds

New research suggests nearly a third of New Zealanders are growing more sceptical of vaccination, reports the Herald. The findings, published by University of Auckland researchers, looked at perceptions on vaccination between 2013 and 2017, using data from the 20-year New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, which regularly polls more than 18,000 New Zealanders on various topics.

While 60% of those surveyed remained highly confident vaccines were safe, the study also found 30% were growing more sceptical. “The data did show a quite high number – 30% – of people who are less supportive of vaccination now than they were five years ago and the danger is that trend will continue, which poses a challenge in terms of public health messaging,” lead author Carol Lee said.

Read the full story on the Herald

8.40am: Stocktake paints bleak picture of NZ’s hospital facilities

A report into the state of New Zealand’s hospitals shows many facilities are in “poor or very poor” shape, reports RNZ. The current-state assessment of DHB assets, released by the Ministry of Health today, is the first review of its kind, and estimates $14 billion will be needed over the next decade to fix the sometimes precarious state of the power, water and IT systems that keep more than 1,100 buildings running, repeating an estimate first given in 2018.

“Audits of DHBs found that poor asset management has compromised the quality of long-term plans,” reads the report. “The Covid-19 pandemic response also highlighted weaknesses in health sector asset management, notably around the capacity of facilities, sitewide infrastructure, clinical equipment and IT.”

The stocktake covers problems with sourcing vital equipment such as ventilators, with older negative pressure rooms so poorly designed they compromise infection control, and with data systems so old and mismatched they have hampered development of a gold-standard contact tracing system, reports RNZ.

Speaking to Kim Hill on RNZ’s Morning Report this morning, health minister David Clark said the report “betrays a lack of investment over a long period of time”. To the suggestion he could have done more during the time he’s been in charge, Clark said “no, one of the challenges is workforce issues. The government can commit capital but we need business cases developed, we need boots on the ground to build infrastructure. We have sent a clear signal to the market and infrastructure firms that we’re serious about investment.”

To Hill’s suggestion that the government had done nothing for DHBs, which she said had been struggling for a long time, Clark replied that a significant investment had been made, “but the way DHBs run things, you can’t just throw money at that stuff. Systems have to be developed, and they are, so we have better systems on the IT side”.

Read the full story on RNZ

7.45am: Finance minister says wage subsidy extension starting today will be the last

The first tranche of the government’s wage subsidy scheme, first announced on March 17, ended yesterday, with $11.013 billion paid out to 1,665,724 employees, reports the Herald. The scheme has been extended for a further eight weeks and starting at 9am today, businesses that have suffered a 40% Covid-19-related loss in revenue will be eligible for the subsidy.

Finance minister Grant Robertson – who expects 230,000 businesses will be eligible for the extended scheme – this morning told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking there would be no further extensions after the current extension ends on August 9. He told Hosking he could understand Jacinda Ardern’s anger at The Warehouse, which announced a plan to cut more than 1,000 jobs, after it took up the wage subsidy scheme. “I can understand what the prime minister is saying there. You have got a business like The Warehouse when you have a lot of small businesses – and I get a lot of emails – who have really dipped into savings, often into personal bank accounts to be able keep their business going forward.

“Then we see some of our larger businesses with these big layoffs, many which perhaps aren’t even that related to Covid, they probably related to plans they already had. Everyone’s balance sheets are being stretched here… the taxpayers’, the government on behalf of taxpayer, small businesses… we want to make sure everyone is pitching in.”

Asked whether some companies were taking the government for a ride, Robertson said: “The wage subsidy scheme was designed to keep people on… and we said please retain your staff for the 12 weeks. With level one kicking in, sales are right up there, The Warehouse themselves said their sales were right up there, we were creating that breathing space so people could come out the other side.”

7.30am: Updates from today’s edition of The Bulletin

Today’s main story comes from a reader suggestion, who had spotted a gap in news coverage. Dan wrote in to ask how Australia was doing with Covid-19, and what the view there on a trans-Tasman bubble is. The issue has obviously been a massive point of discussion in New Zealand, with the latest being foreign minister Winston Peters saying he’s had discussions with Tasmania about state by state reopening – Stuff has a report on that, and Peters insisted that if it were up to him, the bubble would already be inflated.

But the bubble doesn’t seem to be quite such a major talking point in Australia. It’s a relatively qualitative point to make, but a scan of several major news websites reveals the relationship with China is the big foreign policy issue for Australia right now – for example the Sydney Morning Herald reports that Chinese investment in Australia has crashed, or read this longer piece from the ABC about the deterioration in the relationship over the last several months. Where there is mention of the trans-Tasman bubble over the last few weeks, the reporting largely appears to be drawn from the comments of New Zealand politicians – for example, this SMH piece about trans-Tasman football friendlies that bounced off comments from prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

That’s not to say Australians aren’t interested in a trans-Tasman bubble – the Australian Chamber of Commerce is one group that has been pushing for flights between Wellington and Canberra by July.But it doesn’t appear to be a defining focus, and interstate travel is arguably a much bigger concern. This incredible piece of search engine optimisation bait from the Guardian reveals how bewilderingly messy it is – each state has markedly different rules on gatherings, venues, the distance you can be away from your house and so on. Most states still aren’t allowing entry without a permit, and like New Zealand, require a fortnight of quarantine. New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT are a bit more open, but other states aren’t.

Australia has managed to slow their number of Covid-19 cases down to a trickle, recording daily updates in the single digits or low double digits over the last 30 days. But there are new cases every single day, which is a complicating factor. The Guardian has a graph that breaks down the daily case updates on a state by state basis – each of them has a fairly flat curve, but South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania have barely increased at all in the last month. Note – that graph only goes up to about the start of June.

Heavy testing of those with symptoms is taking place, but fears of hidden cases are revealed in this SMH story on a new drive to test blood samples too. Interestingly, the samples are being tested anonymously, and those whose blood tests positive won’t be notified. The purpose of the study is to get a general sense of how much Covid-19 is out in the community, because Australia is following a suppression strategy, rather than seeking to eliminate the virus entirely.

Finally on the subject of Australia, this piece isn’t really to do with the trans-Tasman bubble, it’s just an excellent piece of writing. The Monthly’s (soft paywall) George Megalogenis has written about the sense of isolation that has now descended on Australia with the borders closed, and how that mood has translated through to politics, particularly between the federal and state governments. This passage in particular is relevant for how we think about the bubble on our side of the Tasman – we have to contend with half a dozen different governments to make it work. To quote:

“Pandemics reverse hierarchies. The states have constitutional authority for much of the response; they run health, education and police. The Commonwealth can’t impose its will in the usual way, through intimidation or cash incentive.”

Police commissioner Andrew Coster has announced that Armed Response Teams will not be used again in future, after a trial that finished earlier this year. The best reporting on the story has come from Stuff’s Sam Sherwood and Collette Devlin, who have extensively covered both the reasoning given by Coster, and the disagreements within policing over the matter. Coster says it was clear from public submissions that armed police did not align with how New Zealanders expected policing to take place, though Police Association boss Chris Cahill expressed disappointment with the decision, and how the trial had been “hobbled from the start”. There have been significant concerns from Māori about the ARTs, and Te Ao News reports the decision has been greeted with relief.

Apologies – this one was teased in yesterday’s Bulletin, but never ended up running. Trade minister David Parker has taken aim at the European Union for not moving far enough on agriculture protectionism for a trade deal.The NZ Herald’s Hamish Rutherford reports Parker has described market access for dairy products so far as “paltry” and “a very negative signal”. Parker questioned whether Europe in fact really wanted to sign a deal. Politik picked up the story yesterday morning, noting that Parker had made an angry phone call to Brussels overnight. There’s also an indication in the story of stubbornness on NZ’s part – Fonterra says their “key defensive concern” would be continuing to be allowed to use geographically based product names, like camembert.

Carparks have been saved, and temporary cycleways scrapped by the Wellington City Council, reports the Dominion Post. The temporary cycleways had initially been planned to allow for better socially distanced transport options, but now that we’re at level one and public transport can go back to full capacity, so the proposals were pulled. Here’s hoping we never move levels ever again, or else the decision may look a bit short-sighted – it might look a bit short-sighted regardless, but let’s not go there, cycleways are a very touchy subject in Wellington local body politics.

National has promised to scrap Teaching Council registration fees if elected by directly funding the organisation, reports Newshub. There has been controversy recently over a decision to increase the fee burden on teachers, by forcing them to pay slightly lower amounts but far more frequently. The organisation operates independently of the government, and the change would require an amendment to the Education Act. Education minister Chris Hipkins accused National of “politicising” the increase in fees.

A coalition of five minor parties have joined forces to challenge the broadcasting allocation of public money for the election. I’ve reported on the push, which includes Social Credit, the Māori Party, New Conservative, the Outdoors Party, and Legalise Cannabis. They say that once again, the $4 million fund has been duopolised by Labour and National, which in their view is unfair because there is already much more opportunity for those parties to fundraise and get their message out to the public.

A new podcast series about New Zealand’s spy agencies has uncovered a few troubling stories. Radio NZ has revealed that former Labour MP Richard Northey – now chair of the Waitematā Local Board – was spied on by the SIS while he was in parliament. That included a period in which he was chairing a select committee tasked with overseeing a bill that would change the powers held by the SIS. He said it was “outrageous”.

7.15am: George Floyd’s funeral under way in Houston, Texas

George Floyd, the African American man whose killing by white police in Minneapolis two weeks ago sparked a global movement of protests, is currently being farewelled in Houston, Texas, where he will be buried next to his mother. Singer Dray Tate gave a rendition of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ as an artist onstage painted Floyd’s face in white paint on a black canvas, reports the New York Times. A reading from the Old Testament included a passage from the Book of Amos: “Wailing shall be in all the streets.”

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden offered his condolences to the family in a video played at the private funeral, saying he understood the weight of grieving in public. “It is a burden,” he said, “a burden that is now your purpose, to change the world for the better.” Houston mayor Sylvester Turner spoke at the funeral, announcing that he would sign an executive order later to prohibit the city police from using chokeholds or strangleholds. Family remembered Floyd as a star student-athlete and father.

7.00am: Yesterday’s key stories

New Zealand entered its first day under level one restrictions.

There are still no active cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand for the first time since February. It’s now been 18 days since the last new case was reported.

New border restrictions have been announced, with travellers no longer able to apply for compassionate release from isolation to attend funerals or tangihanga. They will still be able to attend smaller gathers before or after those events.

Armed police patrols were scrapped. Police commissioner Andrew Coster said the Armed Response Teams trial had failed to get support from New Zealanders.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern expressed anger over The Warehouse Group’s plans to cut 1,080 jobs. In response, National’s Paul Goldsmith told her to “stick to her knitting”.

Otago University epidemiologist Nick Wilson said New Zealand’s contact tracing systems are still “completely unacceptable”.

Federated Farmers described a leaked EU/NZ free trade proposal as “insultingly low”. Under the leaked proposal, New Zealand farmers would get access to a fraction of a percent of the European market for cheese and butter

Read yesterday’s live updates here

Keep going!