Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

SocietyMay 12, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, May 12: No new cases today; ERC hears of desperate times for tourism

Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield. (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.

7.10pm: The day in sum

New Zealand recorded no new cases of Covid-19, and no deaths.

The house sat to debate under urgency legislation to allow the enforcement of levels one and two

Racing minister Winston Peters unveiled a $72.5 million recovery package for the New Zealand racing industry in a pre-budget announcement at the Beehive.

In another pre-budget teaser, the Ministry of Health released a statement promising “record investment in hospitals and health services”.

The Electoral Commission revealed plans for the September election and referendums to maintain public health in the face of Covid-19.

The hard-hit tourism industry appealed for more government support during today’s Epidemic Response Committee hearing

Meanwhile Jacinda Ardern announced the government will partner with industries to help redeploy some of the country’s 400,000 strong tourism workforce while the industry rebuilds.

Bunnings told 145 staff they could lose their jobs after the company proposed closing seven of its New Zealand stores.

6.45pm: On The Spinoff today

They’re calling level two a return to normality, but for many of us that’s not really true. Sam Brooks explains the anxiety surrounding a world that’s more open, and more dangerous

Over lockdown, a small team of music industry professionals have become emergency response workers. Josie Adams  visited Spark Arena to meet them

With the government yet to announce its preferred contact tracing technology, the market is being flooded with private options. Alex Braae reports on an app developed for the local hospitality industry that has caught the eye of Wellington City Council

Dr Alex Kazemi, an ICU specialist, writes on  the opportunity Covid-19 provides to rebuild our healthcare system

University of Otago researchers are analysing the way lockdown has affected New Zealanders’ perception of the world

5.35pm: Where did New Zealand’s Covid-19 cases come from?

Here’s a fascinating new chart from our data visualisation crew, Chris McDowall and David Garcia, showing the origin of confirmed cases of Covid-19 by DHB. As you can see, while cases in some areas – like Taranaki, Tairawhiti and Waikato – came almost exclusively from overseas, for other DHBs (e.g. South Canterbury, West Coast, Canterbury).the majority of cases were of domestic origin.

5.15pm: Debate underway on new enforcement legislation

Parliament is currently debating the Covid-19 Public Health Response Bill, which is being rushed through the house under urgency to allow the enforcement of levels one and two. Its purpose as outlined by David Parker, attorney general, is to “establish standalone legislation that provides a different legal framework for responding to Covid-19 over the next two years or until Covid-19 is sooner brought under control”.

National leader Simon Bridges, speaking in the house, said the legislation would received “very limited scrutiny”, leaving “the room for error”. He raised concerns particularly around the decision, which will be enforced under this legislation, to keep funerals and tangi to 10 people, while cinemas, for example, could hold as many as 100. “Simply put, it’s not right,” he said. “This outcome is not kind and in fact it’s inhumane.”

A short time later MP Michael Woodhouse told a reporter that National would be voting against the first reading of the law. The bill is here.

3.00pm: We’re desperate, tourism industry tells committee

Representatives from the tourism industry spoke to the Epidemic Response Committee this morning, in a two-hour session that must rank as among the bleakest so far. To a person, the participants spoke of a sector reeling from the effects of the near-total cessation of travel to, and around New Zealand. Those who rely primarily on international arrivals were particularly hard hit, they told the parliamentary committee. “Our balance sheet could easily make it through a recession, but we can’t make it through zero revenue,” said Eve Lawrence, general manager for the touring and accommodation group Haka Travel. “With some pivoting, today we’re trading at around an 80% revenue loss. In early March, it was more like 95%.”

Les Morgan, COO of local hotel group Sudima, had similar numbers to report. The company’s 550-person workforce has been reduced by 85%, he said, and revenues are down 80%, with managed isolation contracts from the Ministry of Health currently its only source of income. One hotel is mothballed, and another about to be.

“We’re facing zero revenue, not one dollar,” said Matt Brady, CEO of inbound travel company Pan Pacific Travel. “And we’re looking at a period which the PM says is for a very, very, very long time. So we’re fighting for our very existence.”

As to what they’re looking for from the government, there was universal agreement: an extension to the wage subsidy. Lawrence called for the 12 week cap to be lifted to 26 weeks “if not further” for specific hard-hit sectors like tourism. Many also expressed frustration over the lack of clarity on the “trans-Tasman bubble” that has been mooted by the government, arguing that even the most vague timeframe for a border opening between the two countries could help them hold on.

Some of the strongest words came from Lawrence, in response to the idea that a government-funded domestic tourism campaign could act as a panacea for the industry. “I don’t believe for a moment that domestic can even come close to filling the massive void that having no international visitors is going to create in New Zealand,” she said. “I think the general consensus across a lot of my industry colleagues is that, if we’re lucky, we might see 20% of our revenue, year on year.

“Efforts to reimagine tourism in the middle of a crisis is like calling in an architect instead of the fire service while your house is still burning down. We need to first put our efforts in place to save the house, and only then think about rebuilding and reimagining our industry.”

2.25pm: National queries racing money

Michael Woodhouse, the National Party spokesperson for health, has released a statement this afternoon slamming the $72.5 million Winston Peters has earmarked for the racing in the budget, saying it was “a damning indictment of the government’s priorities” that racing was getting more extra funding than Pharmac.

“On Sunday the government gave Pharmac an extra $10 million for the next financial year, today we learnt that Winston Peters is giving racing multiple times that,” he said. “It is insulting to give more money to horses than health during a pandemic.”

2.10pm: 145 Bunnings jobs on the line

Bunnings has told 145 staff they could lose their jobs after the company proposed closing seven of its New Zealand stores, the Herald reports. The affected stores are in Ashburton, Hornby, Hastings, Cambridge, Rangiora, Te Awamutu and Putaruru. “Despite the incredible efforts of our teams, the challenges at these stores have been exacerbated as a result of the Covid-19 environment and unfortunately these stores are no longer a viable part of our store network,” Bunnings NZ director Jacqui Coombes said.

1.30pm: The latest data, charted

Today’s graph shows recovered cases of Covid-19 continuing to vastly outnumber active cases. Below are the cases by active, recovered and deceased. Hover your cursor for more information.

1.05pm: No new cases

On the week New Zealand moves into alert level two, there are no new cases of Covid-19 to report, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield has announced.

The total case number remains at 1,497, with 12 further people recorded as recovered, which is 93% of all confirmed and probable cases.

The total number of active Covid-19 cases in New Zealand is now 78.

There are only two people remaining in hospital. There are no additional deaths.

There were 2,893 tests processed yesterday, bringing the total to 197,084.

New Zealand has now been in alert level three for 14 days, so it can be confidently assumed that these latest results reflect the efficacy of the level three measures.

In terms of numbers of new cases, the last seven days look like this: 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, and today, 0.

Bloomfield provided an update on hospital visits under alert level two. In high risk areas such as emergency, intensive care and maternity, it will be one visitor per day, and in other parts of the hospital, one visitor at a time. There will be flexibility on the part of individual DHBs and clinicians.

Both Bloomfield and the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, paid special tribute to nurses on International Day of the Nurse. Ardern also acknowledged “all of the Jennys”, a reference to the London nurse who was praised by British prime minister Boris Johnson.

Business support

Ardern announced that to date 676 businesses have applied for tax refunds under the Covid support package, to a value of more than $62 million.

The wage subsidy scheme has now paid out $10.7 billion to 1.75 million New Zealanders, said Ardern.

The government’s SME business loan scheme is also now live.

Moving to level two

Ardern encouraged employers as New Zealand moves into alert level two to look at ways of staggering shift times to relieve pressure on public transport systems and allow distancing.

Challenged on alert level two rules that meant a cap of 10 people at a funeral yet cinemas permitted to host 100 people, Ardern said: “The whole definition is whether or not you’re coming together to be with others. And there are circumstances where people aren’t in the same place to mix and mingle.”

She said decisions around funerals and tangihanga had been the most difficult personally to make. “I also know funerals and tangi are places where you want to comfort people. It is your natural instinct. That’s why we come together. And the idea that we would force people to not be able to support one another, to comfort one another, is a very hard thing to comprehend.”

She said she hoped those rules would only be in place for “a very, very short period”.

Ardern said guidance on community sport resuming would be provided later today.

Winston Peters

Jacinda Ardern dodged a series of questions about remarks by Winston Peters, including around the future of the hongi, rules for tangi, and telling the Chinese ambassador she should “listen to your master” around his statements on the status of Taiwan.

12.55pm: Today’s briefing

Today’s Covid-19 case numbers will be updated shortly. Watch here:

12.35pm: Sex workers still waiting for clarity on work at level two

Sex workers are still waiting to find out if they can work under alert level two, 1 News reports. New Zealand Prostitutes Collective founding member Dame Catherine Healy said the collective had been in meeting with the Ministry of Health, MBIE and the National Crisis Management Centre, but was still waiting on guidelines saying whether or not they can operate. “They didn’t promise a timeline, but they did say they would get back to us,” she said.

One of the country’s most high profile sex workers, Lisa Lewis, was critical of the lack of clarity, saying: “I am hoping that if our prime minister has time to laugh about how we can go dating in Level 2, that she can give us – being thousands of the adult profession in New Zealand – some direction.”

12.15pm: Peters announces $72.5m racing industry package

Racing minister Winston Peters has unveiled a $72.5 million recovery package for the New Zealand racing industry in a pre-budget announcement at the Beehive this afternoon. The package will provide a $50 million relief grant to the Racing Industry Transition Agency (RITA) and $20 million for two new synthetic all-weather race tracks to be installed at Awapuni and Riccarton. The government would also start looking at regulating offshore online gambling in an attempt to return profits onshore. The racing industry contributes $1.6 billion to the economy each year, Peters said, and was “seriously underestimated for its important contribution to our regions and our economy”.

Among comments made in a wide-ranging press conference after the announcement, Peters said the hongi may never return as a form of greeting in the post-Covid world, because “cultures that don’t adapt die”.

11.35am: Coming up today

As for New Zealand’s own daily case numbers, the classic line-up of Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield is back today for the 1pm briefing. We’ll have updates and the live stream link here on the blog, of course.

11.30am: NSW has first zero day

The Australian state of New South Wales has recorded zero new daily cases for the first time since the pandemic began, the ABC reports. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said while it was a major milestone for the state, people shouldn’t be complacent. “We know that there will be people walking around today in the community that will have the virus,” she said.

10.45am: Funeral director slams ‘inconsistent’ guidelines

The president of the Funeral Directors Association says level two guidelines which limit funeral attendance to 10 people are “inconsistent and ludicrous”. Speaking on The AM Show this morning, Gary Taylor said he felt the industry wasn’t being taken seriously by the government. “You can go to a supermarket and be with 60 other people, I can invite 10 people to a restaurant – but I can only have 10 at mum or dad’s funeral,” he said.

Jacinda Ardern defended the decision to limit funeral attendances, pointing out the difference between the supermarket and funerals. “You don’t go [to the supermarket] to be in contact with other supermarket shoppers. At a funeral – the very point of a funeral is to comfort one another … that’s why you see that consistency of treatment between, for instance, a wedding and funerals, because those are times when we come together to be together closely.”

10.30am: Changes to voting revealed ahead of September election

The Electoral Commission has revealed plans for the September election and referendums to maintain public health in the face of Covid-19. Measures include queue management, physical distancing, hand sanitiser use and protective gear.

Advance voting will start two days earlier than planned, on Saturday September 5, to reduce congestion. The number and size of advance voting places will be increased, especially on the weekend before election day.

“Voting services can also be delivered to small clusters of voters who are in isolation during the voting period using takeaway voting, which is when voting papers are delivered and picked up,” said Alicia Wright, the chief electoral officer.

The prime minister has said that the election will go ahead as planned on September 19. “If an outbreak occurs in a large area of the country during the voting period, there are emergency powers available to the chief electoral officer to delay election day voting by up to seven days at a time,” notes the commission release. “The safety of delivering an election at a nationwide alert levels three or four is a public health decision that would need to be taken by the government.”

More information is here.

10.10am: Hospitality industry losing ‘$40 million a day’

Yesterday’s announcement that bars would have to wait another week to reopen under level two was “a kick in the guts” for the struggling industry, Wellington bar owner and Hospitality NZ regional president Matt McLaughlin told RNZ’s Morning Report this morning. He said the industry was losing $40 million per day in lost revenue while bars stayed shut, and predicted up to 30-40% of the industry could be forced to fold as a result. With the wage subsidy scheme period running out soon, industry-specific support was needed, he said.

9.55am: ERC tackles tourism

This morning’s edition of the Epidemic Response Committee on Zoom will focus on one of the industries hardest hit by Covid-19: tourism. The list of submitters includes representatives of NZ Maori Tourism, Haka Tourism Group, Event Impressions, Sounds Air, Pan Pacific Travel, Sudima Hotels and Tourism Industry Aotearoa, before the committee gets to put the hard questions to tourism minister Kelvin Davis. We’ll have updates, and you can watch it here:

9.30am: DHBs and hospitals to receive record budget spend

The Ministry of Health has released another teaser for Thursday’s budget announcement this morning, with a statement promising “record investment in hospitals and health services”. The big numbers include DHBs receiving an extra $3.92 billion over the next four years, a $282.5 million boost over three years for a campaign to catch up on surgeries after the disruption of Covid-19, and ongoing funding of $125.4 million over four years to manage planned care.

“We don’t want people having to wait for care any longer than necessary,” health minister David Clark said. “This extra investment in planned care will fund an estimated 153,000 surgeries and procedures, radiology scans, and specialist appointments over the next three years.”

8.35am: South Korea re-closes bars after second wave of cases

South Korea is among a growing number of cautionary tales about the dangers of partying too hard, too early once lockdown restrictions have been eased. Thousands of bars and nightclubs in and around the capital of Seoul have been ordered to shut again just days after reopening after a second wave of new Covid-19 cases emerged over the weekend. According to this report on the Herald, most could be traced back to one “superspreader”, a 29-year-old man on an “epic pub crawl”. Vice health minister Kim Gang-lip told a media briefing: “A drop of ink in clear water spreads swiftly. Anyone can become that drop of ink that spreads Covid-19.”

8.15am: Tourism workforce will be redeployed

The government will partner with industries to help redeploy some of the country’s 400,000 strong tourism workforce while the industry rebuilds, Jacinda Ardern told Breakfast this morning. The prime minister cited  tourism workers near her hometown of Matamata who had already been redeployed to work in horticulture as one example. More business support was coming this week, she said, and specific support for tourism was being worked on.

Ardern also promised that the hundreds of homeless people housed in response to Covid-19 would retain their accommodation once the country is out of lockdown. “That should be one of the byproducts of Covid-19, is taking people off the streets,” she said. “We have applied what we call a housing first strategy where we put social support around someone as well, because there’s often a whole range of issues that we’re helping someone navigate through.”

Asked about the diplomatic tension between New Zealand and China over the government’s support for the return of Taiwan to the WHO, Ardern said it “does not change New Zealand’s position on a One China policy whatsoever”.

8.00am: Updates from today’s edition of The Bulletin

So we got the announcement yesterday – we will be moving to alert level two this Thursday. The decision was outlined by PM Jacinda Ardern at yesterday afternoon’s press conference – if you missed it, read her speech here. It’s a very big moment in the overall fight against Covid-19, and as Toby Manhire reports, it will take place in a phased process – for example, schools and early learning centres won’t open again until Monday next week.

The relative simplicity of level three and four is now being replaced with something a lot more complicated, in that it is a system designed to allow people out and about again while still maintaining a safe level of distancing. Perhaps because of that complexity, some of the rules of level two are changing before our eyes. That has always been a possibility since the alert level system was announced – there has after all always been room in them for tinkering. For example, the original level two limited regional travel, a restriction which has now been eased up. But some of the recent changes have caused genuine confusion, and will have a real impact on people’s lives.

For starters, the limits on gatherings: Last Thursday it was announced that social gatherings would be capped at 100 people. Now they’re being capped at 10, for pretty much everything you could think of. That includes events like weddings and tangi, and the Funerals Association has condemned that reversal as “cruel and harsh.” The justification from the PM is that with bubbles slowly being opened up, it is safer at this stage to continue to limit the number of contacts each person has. She also said the government was hearing those concerns, and that the rules would be reviewed in two weeks.

Then there was the announcement that bars would not be allowed to open until Thursday next week. It made sense, because the drinking side of social life inevitably carries a lot more risk of passing on a virus. Then it was clarified in a press release from minister Kris Faafoi, just hours afterwards, that bars would actually be able to open on Thursday of this week provided patrons are served a meal – basically, the exact same rules that restaurants are under. This might seem like playing with semantics, or just a question of where the emphasis is, but it matters, because venues that break the rules could end up being shut down.

Thirdly, there was a somewhat odd (and totally unenforceable) suggestion on the government’s Covid response website that private social gatherings would be limited to two hours. That also got clarified – there isn’t a time limit on private gatherings, reports Stuff. But as One News reports, some gatherings will still have the two hour time limit in place, along with the 10 person limit.

For some, these will all be small things. But for others, they’ll be huge, and the changes will seriously disrupt what they would have otherwise been planning. And it cuts against something that has been a real strength in the country’s response so far – the clarity of communication and messaging coming out of the government in getting people to buy into the reason for the restrictions. It may well be that such clarity is no longer possible, as we get into the more nuanced world of the lower alert levels. Hopefully we’re all ready for that.

Of course, the most important messages are staying the same. Stay at home if you feel even slightly sick. Practice physical distancing when you’re out in public. And make sure you keep on washing those hands.

From the Friday files: Our second piece in this series concerns some of the nuggets of detail around repatriation flights. It’s published on Yahoo, and is by Australian Associated Press (AAP) journo Ben McKay. There are the main facts of course – how much is being spent on the flights, how many Kiwis have been brought home, and the massive effort at MFAT that has been put towards the programme. But among the other stuff, there is an odd detail about higher risk countries being targeted for repatriation flights, which is fair enough – it’s just that it’s less clear about when flights from countries that are lower risk will be happening, if at all, which could leave some New Zealanders overseas stuck.

By the way, thanks to everyone who has made a suggestion so far for this series – keep them coming in to

Questions about Work and Income allegedly denying benefits to those made redundant continue to swirl. Radio NZ’s Glen Scanlon reports the organisation has been contacted by many others in a similar position since the story broke, and there are now suggestions that the best remedy for the issue might be a class action lawsuit. The scale of this is potentially pretty staggering – there could be literally thousands of people in line for compensation payments. Late in the evening, there was another update from Radio NZ – minister Carmel Sepuloni has stepped in and ordered an investigation “to ensure MSD practice reflects the legislation”. Of course, for those who suffered at the time as a result of these unlawful alleged practices, that might not be much comfort.

China has sent a strong warning to the NZ government over advocacy for Taiwan at the World Health Organisation. The backstory to this was covered last week – and the latest update can be found as the most recent entry in yesterday’s live blog. The Spinoff received a transcript of the briefing from Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian from a source, and it’s pretty strident language. I’ll quote at length so you can see what I mean:

“The remarks on the Taiwan issue severely violate the One China principle. We firmly reject and deplore it. We have lodged stern representations.”

Zhao Lijian added: “The talking up of any suggestion of participation by the Taiwan province in the WHO and the World Health Assembly mask a true intention of seeking independence under the pretext of the virus.” It was a “thoroughly political manoeuvre” by Taiwan. “We urge the New Zealand side to abide by the One China principle and stop its wrong deeds and words on the Taiwan issue, so as to avoid undermining our relations.”

A woman who arrived from the US has tested positive for Covid-19, after spending more than a week quarantining in an Auckland prison. Radio NZ reports she was held there after initially refusing to take a Covid test – she had no contact with other prisoners in that time, and staff around her wore full PPE. Corrections has not yet made it clear whether staff who came into contact with her have been tested.

One of the weirdest media stories of the year played out yesterday through the medium of articles on major news websites, and the NZX announcement board. Duncan Greive has covered the announcement by NZME that they wanted permission to buy Stuff for $1 – Stuff’s parent company Nine responded by saying they had terminated negotiations with NZME last week, before NZME hit back again by saying they still felt they had exclusive negotiating rights. The final word came from Stuff – they published this story late in the day noting that NZX regulators had been in touch with NZME about their original statement. There was also the alarming suggestion in this Business Desk (paywalled) column, that Nine could be mere weeks away from closing Stuff down, which would be a nightmare scenario for journalism in this country.

7.45am: Yesterday’s key stories

From Thursday, New Zealand will begin moving into alert level two, with shops, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, playgrounds, and gyms able to reopen. Bars will be able to reopen from next Thursday.

From Monday, all children will be able to return to school or early learning.

Gatherings will be limited to 10 people across the board.

Three new cases of Covid-19 were reported with two linked to the St Margaret’s cluster and the other linked to overseas travel.

NZME announced a bid to buy Stuff for $1. Then Stuff’s owner Nine said it had withdrawn from negotiations with NZME last week. Then NZME rejected Nine’s statement.

SkyCity announced plans to lay off 700 staff. The job cuts were on top of 200 redundancies announced in early April.

Stats NZ figures showed the scale of the economic losses businesses took during lockdown. Retail spending was down $2.6 billion, or 47%, from March, with hospitality the hardest hit sector.

The NZ Nurses Organisation called for urgent safety improvements at Waitākere Hospital. It’s understood that seven healthcare workers at the hospital have now tested positive for Covid-19.

Super Rugby Aotearoa, a domestic form of the Super Rugby competition, will start on June 13.

Read more in yesterday’s live updates here.

Keep going!