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 four. The country is shut down, apart from essential services. For updated official government advice, see here.
The Spinoff’s coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak is funded by The Spinoff Members. To support this work, join The Spinoff Members here.
Today’s shift: Duncan Greive and Hayden Donnell
7.15pm: The day in sum
There were 19 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, taking the total number of cases to 1,349, with 546 recovered – an increase of 75 recoveries over yesterday.
Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said the low number of new Covid-19 cases was encouraging, even though testing rates were down over the long weekend. The rate of tests coming back positive was still just over 1%, even with the lower number of tests.
Auckland Airport CEO Adrian Littlewood told BusinessDesk that it’s time to start planning for a “trans-Tasman” travel bubble – even if such an eventuality is months away.
Pre-schools could re-open on April 29, provided New Zealand comes out of lockdown on April 23, according to MoE guidelines.
One of the nicer side-effects of lockdown is that cases of the flu appear to be trending down drastically.
An attack on a cellphone tower in the Far North may be linked to 5G conspiracy theories spreading online, the Northern Advocate reports.
Boris Johnson is out of hospital, and shouted out “Jenny from New Zealand. Invercargill in the South Island, to be exact.”
5.05pm: Chris McDowall’s visualisations are updated for April 13
After the briefing, the arrival of Chris McDowall’s updated interactive maps and charts is a key moment in the day. Outside from the power of the day’s number, and the sadness of any deaths, the arc of the various curves he creates from the data helps bring meaning to the day.
4.50pm: Green Cabs latest business to topple under lockdown
National taxi company Green Cabs has announced its closure today, with its predominantly airport-based business dropping a staggering 99.7% under the level four lockdown. “It would take an extraordinary amount of borrowing to see Green Cabs through this period, and we simply cannot service the debt, even if we come out the other side,” GM Rob Wheeler wrote in a letter to staff earlier this month. Stuff reports that it cited the challenge of operating in the ridesharing era as having made the business unstable prior to lockdown, meaning it was unable to withstand this storm. “We were somewhat vulnerable and exposed financially before the outbreak, we are absolutely nonviable now,” he wrote.
4.30pm: Bloomfield on hydroxychloroquine and onions
“I’m not as practised at this as the prime minister,” said Ashley Bloomfield at the start of a Facebook live event, wherein he traded out the press gallery for some moderately screened questions from the public. The doctor has gone from a near-invisible public servant to the ubiquitous face of the health response to Covid-19 in a matter of weeks – a bookish sex symbol, a balm to frayed nerves, source of a thousand memes.
We’ve edited the dozen or so questions he received from the public down to the best, and also the worst.
3.05pm: Auckland Airport CEO pushes trans-Tasman bubble
Auckland International Airport chief executive Adrian Littlewood has told BusinessDesk (paywalled, worth subscribing) that it’s time to start planning for a “trans-Tasman” travel bubble – even if such an eventuality is months away. “We need to test and trial those mechanisms across the Tasman, even if it’s state-by-state for a start,” he told Pattrick Smellie, editor of the online business news startup. He said that such a move would provide a huge boost to each country’s respective tourism industries, particularly given that much of the rest of the world is likely to be closed off for at least a year.
The move came not long after Australian federal tourism minister Simon Birmingham urged “see Australia first” after lockdown ends, while raising the prospect of “a little bit” of travel to New Zealand. He reiterated the likelihood of Australia’s closed borders staying that way through the remainder of the year. Auckland Airport, which is part-owned by Auckland Council, is listed on the NZX. Its shares closed at $5.75 on Friday, down from $8.65 on February 21, but up from a recent low of $4.59 on March 19, a week before New Zealand went into lockdown.
1.30pm: Bloomfield addresses lower testing numbers
Bloomfield said the low number of new Covid-19 cases was encouraging, even though testing rates were down over the long weekend. The rate of tests coming back positive was still just over 1%, even with the lower number of tests. The Ministry of Health would be looking to up test numbers over the coming week to ensure it’s not missing hidden community transmission, he said.
“We were expecting a drop-off in testing over the Easter period,” said Bloomfield. “This is a pattern we see in terms of people seeking healthcare on public holidays in usual periods, and therefore we’ve seen that happen over Easter. There has been testing available for people through CBACs [community based assessment centres], and of course through general practice or after-hours clinics.
“The other thing I think is happening here – and I checked this with our chief science adviser, Dr Ian Town, who is a respiratory physician – is of course with the alert level four measures we have got in place, we will see much less opportunity for the whole range of respiratory illnesses to be transmitted between people. This would include influenza and also common colds, so we would expect less people with respiratory symptoms that might be suggestive of Covid-19 seeking care and therefore testing as a result of those symptoms.”
He said 77 CBACs were operating around the country, as well as 54 designated general practices, swabbing centres and mobile clinics.
Bloomfield was asked why the number of Māori testing positive for Covid-19 was just 8.2%, when Māori make up more than 16% of the New Zealand population. He said he wasn’t worried about that low number of positive tests, because the number of Māori being tested was more in line with that New Zealand’s population breakdown. Māori communities may be strongly adhering to alert level four lockdown rules, he said.
Bloomfield added that health officials would be doing surveillance testing over the coming weeks. He said one challenge was creating a sample that would give them confidence community transmission wasn’t occurring. Wide-scale testing would continue to be carried out as New Zealand moves down through alert levels, he said. “When we’re in alert level three we’ll still be wanting to do testing to make sure we haven’t got cases still out there in the community.”
1.25pm: Ardern details week focused on business sector
PM Jacinda Ardern said finance minister Grant Robertson will deliver a speech on Wednesday outlining further assistance to help businesses navigate the lockdown. He will also set out the government’s revised approach to the 2020 Budget. “We are very aware of the need to get more of our economy running as soon as possible,” she said. Ardern acknowledged the difficulties everyone is facing as lockdown drags on, but said it was important to maintain social distancing rules.
“I do not underestimate the stresses and strains many of you will be experiencing at home as this goes on. Week three may in fact feel the hardest. We’re coming around the bend but we can’t yet see the finish line, but our job this week remains the same and as important as ever.”
Ardern also laid out the shape of the week ahead for business:
Tomorrow the Treasury will release economic projections around GDP, unemployment and economic recovery.
On Wednesday the finance minister, Grant Robertson, will deliver an online speech to Business NZ on further measures to “cushion the impact of the lockdown on business”, and outline revisions in the budget process.
On Thursday, Ardern will provide more detail on the requirements for levels two and three, so businesses and other organisations can make plans. Talks on this with sector leaders will begin as soon as tomorrow.
1.15pm: 19 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, one further death
There has been another death linked to Covid-19 in New Zealand, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield has announced. A man in his 80s died in Burwood Hospital after testing positive. It takes the total number of deaths in New Zealand to five. There are 19 new cases of Covid-19, Bloomfield announced, comprising 15 confirmed and four probable cases. It takes the total number cases to 1,349, with 546 recovered – an increase of 75 recoveries over yesterday.
The man who died was linked to a cluster of cases at the Rosewood aged residential care facility in Christchurch, the third person from that cluster to die. Overall there are now 33 Covid-19 cases linked with the Rosewood cluster. Of those, 17 are confirmed and 16 are probable. All three of the deaths were confirmed cases, Bloomfield said. One of the new cases connected to the Rosewood cluster is a staff member at Burwood Hospital, said Bloomfield, and the DHB is investigating how this person became infected. He said all staff involved in the care and transfer of the residents from the rest home to the hospital were using appropriate PPE.
There are now 15 clusters – an increase of two from yesterday. One of the new clusters is at an aged care facility in Auckland, while another is a small outbreak in Christchurch. Bloomfield said health officials are still investigating the cause of that outbreak.
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand was not in a position to move out of alert level four early. “Our number of cases may be small but that doesn’t mean we’ve been successful in hunting this virus down,” she said., adding that the country can’t afford to relax any lockdown rules. She admonished people who had travelled or gathered together over Easter, saying all it takes is one infected person to create a big cluster of new cases. She pointed to the Bluff wedding cluster, where one person with Covid-19 spread the virus to more than 80 others.
Bloomfield said that 13 of the 16 New Zealanders who have been aboard the Greg Mortimer cruise ship will soon be arriving in Auckland, with none of them considered unwell enough to need hospital care. They will however all be treated as high risk, and kept in quarantine for 14 days, regardless of whether they test positive for Covid-19. The Greg Mortimer was notable for very high rates of Covid-19 infection, with more than half the passengers on board testing positive.
There are 15 people in hospital, including four people in ICU. One person is in a critical condition in Dunedin. There were 1,660 tests conducted, bringing the total to 62,827.
This means the 19 days since lockdown began look like this, in terms of new cases: 78, 85, 83, 63, 76, 58, 61, 89, 71, 82, 89, 67, 54, 50, 29, 44, 29, 18, and today, 19. The average positive tests per day over the last week is 34.7.
12.50pm: Ardern and Bloomfield fronting today’s briefing
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield will be fronting today’s briefing at 1pm. The Ministry of Health’s feed is below:
12.20pm: A note to new and newish readers of The Spinoff
Over the past few weeks, our audience has vastly expanded, so we’ve published a guide for new and newish readers of the site, which explains what The Spinoff is and how best to use it. Here’s an excerpt:
“Over the past four weeks, our site has seen 9m pageviews, with tens of millions more encountering it – Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris’s brilliant animations especially – on social media. While many will be pre-existing readers, our audience (per analytics from Parse.ly) tripled from 1.5m to 4.5m over the last 28 days, and is staying that way. This is backed up by other metrics, including memberships (more on that shortly), which have more than doubled over the same span.
If you’ve been around a while, much of this will be familiar, so feel free to tune out (or drop me a line to tell me what I’ve forgotten). But if you’re a relatively recent reader, here are some things to help you get familiar with The Spinoff.”
11.55pm: Sky Tower to light up as last German expats fly home
Auckland’s Sky Tower will light up red, black and gold this evening to mark the final repatriation flight of Germans out of New Zealand. A Lufthansa A380 is scheduled to leave Auckland at 6.30pm with 500 Germans aboard. It’s the last of 26 flights taking 10,000 German expats home.
11.20am: Flu rates down during Covid-19 lockdown
One of the nicer side-effects of lockdown is that cases of the flu appear to be trending down drastically. ICU doctor Paul Young has highlighted recent figures from flutracking.net, which show the number of people reporting flu-like symptoms is significantly down on the same point last year.
On Radio New Zealand this morning, Te Punaha Matatini professor Shaun Hendy said seasonal flu dies out in New Zealand every year, and is usually revived by cases brought in from overseas. That may not happen given our travel restrictions and physical distancing guidelines, he said. “It’s possible we’ll have a good flu season this year.” Despite that optimism, Hendy said it was still prudent for people to get a flu shot.
You can sign up to flutracking here if you want to help health officials track flu rates in your area.
10.30am: Nurse Jenny from Invercargill’s family speaks
As an update on our earlier story, Stuff has won the footrace to find the family of a New Zealand nurse who UK prime minister Boris Johnson credited with helping save his life. In a five-minute video address released earlier today, Johnson thanked nurse “Jenny from Invercargill” for standing by his bedside for 48 hours “when things could have gone any way”.
Nurse Jenny’s full name was later revealed to be Jenny McGee. Stuff secured the first interview with her mother Caroline McGee, who says she is “absolutely astounded and exceptionally proud” of her daughter. The Herald spoke to Jenny’s brother, Rob McGee. He told Anna Leask the family is not just proud of the support she gave Johnson, but what she is doing to help everyday people. “She is just really pleased to see the public recognition for the amazing work the NHS is doing – that made her really proud.”
10.05am: Growing chorus of international praise for Ardern
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern is winning more international praise for her leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic. In The Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi attributes New Zealand’s comparatively low Covid-19 case numbers and deaths partly to Ardern’s “clarity and compassion”. She is one of several female leaders handling the crisis with more foresight and wisdom than their male counterparts, Mahdawi writes. “What do Germany, Taiwan and New Zealand have in common? Well, they’ve all got female leaders and they’re all doing an exceptional job in their response to the coronavirus crisis.”
Mark Sumner strikes a similar tone in the US website The Daily Kos, pointing out the vastly different trajectories the US and New Zealand have followed in their responses to the virus. In the three weeks after the US reached 100 cases of Covid-19, it spiralled to 34,000 cases and 400 deaths, Sumner writes. Three weeks after it reached 100 Covid-19 infections, New Zealand only had around 1200 cases and one death. “This isn’t simply a matter of population. With far less than 1% of residents infected, the novel coronavirus isn’t close to reaching its limits anywhere, and nations of a similar size have thousands more cases and hundreds of more deaths,” Sumner says. “The difference is one of resolve, insight, and competence. The difference is leadership.”
Alastair Campbell, former press secretary for the UK prime minister Tony Blair, is adding to the chorus in The Independent. He credits Ardern with delivering a “masterclass in crisis communications” as New Zealand headed into its alert level 4 lockdown. “She shared that plan in a way I have never felt the US and UK governments have shared theirs, which has allowed an impression to develop that they are rather making it up as they go along.” Campbell wrote along similar lines for The Herald on April 8.
These stories come after The Washington Post credited New Zealand with “squashing” its Covid-19 curve in a popular article last week.
9.15am: Confusing guidance issued for lockdown weddings
The Registrar-General has issued advice on how to hold weddings during alert level 4, after a Herald report on an Auckland couple’s lockdown nuptials provoked an angry reaction from celebrants. However, his guidance appears to be out-of-step with Ministry of Health rules banning weddings during lockdown.
Ariah and Ben McCarthy got married at their North Shore home with only their flatmates and a celebrant present on April 11. Jeff Montgomery, Registrar for Births, Deaths, and Marriages, has been criticised for issuing a license for the wedding. Wellington celebrant Miranda Zander told The Herald she didn’t believe the wedding was essential, and had received angry calls from celebrants who were under the impression they weren’t allowed to operate during lockdown.
In his statement, Montgomery said he didn’t have the power to rule on whether ceremonies should go ahead. “First and foremost, the Registrar-General does not encourage nor condone marriage ceremonies taking place during the lockdown.” He urged couples who decide to go ahead with their weddings anyway to maintain social distancing and use a celebrant who lives in their bubble or close by.
However, Montgomery also said all couples must comply with Ministry of Health guidance on gatherings and events during alert level 4. He linked to that guidance, which explicitly bans weddings during lockdown. “All indoor and outdoor events cannot proceed,” the guidance says. “These requirements apply to family and social gatherings such as birthdays, funerals, tangi or weddings.”
8.25am: Cell tower arson linked to 5G conspiracy theorists
An attack on a cellphone tower in the Far North may be linked to 5G conspiracy theories spreading online, the Northern Advocate reports. A 4G cell tower on private farmland in Waiharara, north of Kaitāia, was irreparably damaged in an arson committed late last month. While authorities aren’t officially blaming 5G protesters, Telecommunications Forum chief executive Geoff Thorn said that damage to mobile networks in other countries had been linked to the baseless conspiracy theory that 5G causes Covid-19. There are no 5G cellphone towers in Northland.
The tower was being built by the Rural Connectivity Group, which aims to bring 4G to poorly serviced parts of rural New Zealand. Destroying it was even more harmful because Northlanders are more reliant on telecommunications during the alert level 4 lockdown, Thorn said. “We condemn all acts of vandalism but it’s even more frustrating to deal with an attack on critical national infrastructure during a time of national emergency.”
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield were asked about 5G conspiracy theories being spread on social media at a press conference last week. Ardern flatly said the conspiracies weren’t true, while Bloomfield made this memorable face.
7.55am: Boris Johnson shouts out ‘Jenny from Invercargill’
UK PM Boris Johnson is now out of hospital, recovering from a bout of Covid-19 which saw him spend some days in intensive care. He has delivered a five minute-long address down the barrel of the camera, during which he discussed “a week in which the NHS saved my life, no question.” After praising the fortitude and restraint of Britons, he lingered on those healthcare workers who had attended him over the past couple of weeks.
It is hard to find the words to express my debt to the NHS for saving my life.
The efforts of millions of people across this country to stay home are worth it. Together we will overcome this challenge, as we have overcome so many challenges in the past. #StayHomeSaveLives pic.twitter.com/HK7Ch8BMB5
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) April 12, 2020
He named a number of doctors and nurses, before lingering on one duo in particular. “Two nurses, who stood by my bedside for 48 hours, when things might have gone either way,” he said. “They’re Jenny from New Zealand. Invercargill in the South Island, to be exact. And Luis from Portugal, near Porto.”
There now commences a foot race of all New Zealand reporters, aiming to capture the prized first interview with Jenny, from Invercargill.
7.30am: Some daycare will return at the same time as schools
Education minister Chris Hipkins focussed on the reopening of schools during his appearance on Q+A yesterday, but more detail is coming to light about the prospects of a reopening for daycare centres and other forms of early childhood education. A Ministry of Education briefing to early learning providers said that should the alert level be lowered next week, the 23rd and 24th would be for site assessment and planning, but that following the public holiday on April 27, “you may wish to use Tuesday 28 as a staff-only day, or you may choose to welcome children back from that date.”
For parents who have endured a month inside with young children, or need to get back to work, the news will be very well-received. However the NZ Herald‘s education reporter Simon Collins sounded a note of caution, quoting a column from Dr Mike Bedford, a specialist in public health around early childhood, which suggests physical distancing is impossible in such environments. “Children in early childhood education (ECE) can be at an age where they are constantly touching and mouthing surfaces and objects, with surface contamination from oral and nasal secretions. Let’s face it – goo is normal,” Bedford writes. He goes on to suggest that it is more likely that ECE will at first be open to the children of essential service workers, to keep transmission risks as low as possible.
6.00am: How will the world get out of lockdown? And other hard questions
This morning I want to do something a little different with our usual morning wrap of world stories. Like many of you, I’m sure, this story has become something we’re simultaneously addicted to and desperate to get away from. Henry Cooke touched on this in a superb essay on covering the crisis in the Sunday Star-Times yesterday, writing “I get home and just try to catch up on all the news I missed while I was writing it”. Many of us are trapped in our own version of this, wrenching ourselves away for a few hours, then gradually feeling more unmoored until we dive back in. Like the new New Zealand day’s natural divide between pre- and post-briefing, there’s a cyclical rhythm to the desire to gorge on stories, then get distance from them.
So I wanted to take a break from cataloguing the latest statistical terror from various locations around the world, to highlight three stories and one podcast which have stayed with me over the past few weeks. (Don’t worry – I’ve still listed some key overnight datapoints at the bottom.)
David Wallace-Wells, author of the deeply troubling climate-nightmare epic The Uninhabitable Earth (Rebecca Macfie interviewed him for us last year) is among many journalists who’ve pivoted to full-time Covid-19 digestion. He wrote a widely-shared piece under the provocative title ‘The best case for coronavirus is that it’s way more infectious than we think’ for New York magazine, which uses the wildly varying estimates of Covid-19’s infectiousness as a way into what he calls the ‘corona dark web’.
He says it is “a bit to the right of the social-media commentariat generally (which is anchored somewhere on the center-left), is powered by a desire to prove conventional wisdom wrong, and is made up of almost entirely of men, mostly speaking outside of or beyond their areas of expertise.” Not the strongest sell, but while not exactly being persuaded by what he finds, it’s bracing to be given intellectual permission to explore some of the unresolved strands of this immensely complex story.
Ed Yong’s ‘How the pandemic will end’ was written way back on March 25, and thus feels like it almost qualifies as a seminal text in the evolving longform journalism of the pandemic. It’s published by venerable US monthly The Atlantic, which was purchased by Laurene Powell Jobs a few years ago, and has really been a standout of Covid-19 coverage. The story reads like a dystopian thriller, and much of what it prophesied all those weeks ago is either playing out or clearly visible on the horizon.
“Even a perfect response won’t end the pandemic,” he writes, in a section subheaded ‘II. The Endgame’. “As long as the virus persists somewhere, there’s a chance that one infected traveler will reignite fresh sparks in countries that have already extinguished their fires. This is already happening in China, Singapore, and other Asian countries that briefly seemed to have the virus under control. Under these conditions, there are three possible endgames: one that’s very unlikely, one that’s very dangerous, and one that’s very long.”
This theme is also explored in an excellent and very sobering episode of ‘The Weeds’, featuring two of the co-founders of Vox (which merged with New York magazine last year; I admit to my media biases). Hosts Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias discuss what happens after the lockdown in the US, leaning away from the non-existent government plan. It’s one of those imponderables that really needs pondering, something we think about all the time without ever knowing precisely what any of us mean. As they make clear, it feels like a lot of very powerful people seem to be operating under the assumption that we go back to life as we lived it in February. That’s a natural response, a stage of grief – and entirely impossible. Klein has engaged heavily with the most plausible ways of exiting, and all are different kinds of very difficult. Because The Weeds is grounded in policy, the conversation feels very rational, while also driving home just how very hard all this is going to be.
Finally, a plug for something published on our own site. Tess McClure is a New Zealand journalist, who left Auckland a couple of years ago to complete a masters at Columbia. She was already very good, but has emerged from it as compelling a writer as you’ll find anywhere (check out this arresting feature on the makeshift mines which birth the crystals embedded in a massive wellness trend). She’s been in New York City throughout its emergence as the global epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak. Yesterday we published a chilling diary of her month, which begins with less than 100 cases and essentially ordinary life, and ends with over 5,000 dead and life utterly transformed.
“Over chat and Zoom, we talk incessantly about testing,” she writes. “Why aren’t they testing? How do you get a test if you’re sick? Everyone knows someone who knows someone with the symptoms – the fever, the cough, the tight chest – who can’t get a test. The state is still only testing people who require hospitalisation. I have a recurring anxiety dream about walking up a lushly grassed hill that becomes steeper and steeper until I suddenly realise it’s too steep – unclimbable. My sneakers start to slide over the flattened grass, scrabbling for purchase. Occasionally, I tip backwards and start to fall.”
Finally, the key stories and numbers, in even-briefer-than-usual. UK PM Boris Johnson has been discharged from hospital, thanking the NHS for “saving [his] life”. The number who have died in UK hospitals passed 10,000 yesterday. Italy (431) and New York state (758) both saw deaths continue to trend down, while Spain (619) broke a three day run of lowering daily tolls, just as it approached a reopening of its economy…
5.30am: Yesterday’s key stories
There were 18 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, taking the total to 1,220. Fourteen people are in hospital including five in ICU. One of those is in critical condition.
The Ministry of Health has tightened its guidance on the measures aged care facilities must put in place. The changes come as director general of health Ashley Bloomfield says there were “some deficiencies in the policies and procedures” at the aged care facilities at the centre of three Covid-19 clusters.
New research found that most New Zealanders would be happy for the alert level four lockdown to be extended if that’s what it takes to eradicate Covid-19.
Some schools could re-open on April 29, provided New Zealand comes out of lockdown on April 23, according to education minister Chris Hipkins.
Nearly 500 homeless and vulnerable people have been set up in motel units during the Covid-19 crisis, the government announced.
The government is offering councils extra funding to roll out temporary expanded footpaths and cycleways following the alert level four lockdown.
Police said they’ve recorded 677 lockdown breaches since the government implemented alert level 4 just over two weeks ago
Catch up on all of yesterday’s main stories here.