Prime minister Jacinda Ardern (Photo: Mark Mitchell/Pool/Getty Images)

Covid-19 live updates, April 14: PM on ‘our deadliest day’; support package for students announced

For all The Spinoff’s latest coverage of Covid-19 see here. Read Siouxsie Wiles’s work hereNew 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.

On today’s shift: Duncan Greive, Calum Henderson, Toby Manhire, Leonie Hayden

7.00pm: The day in sum

There were four further deaths in New Zealand related to Covid-19 – three men in Burwood Hospital in Christchurch and one man in Wellington hospital. This brings the total to nine. Moe mai rā. Our thoughts go out to their families.

There were 17 new cases of Covid-19. It takes the total number of cases to 1366 with 628 recovered – an increase of 82 recoveries since yesterday.

NZME, publisher of the NZ Herald, announced 200 staff have been made redundant. The news was made public as part of a wider announcement to the NZX this morning. Remaining staff have been asked to accept a reduced salary for the next 12 weeks.

Treasury released a number of scenarios at each alert level to model the impacts of Covid-19 on the economy. View the Treasury scenarios here, and a fuller analysis of the scenarios from Alex Braae on The Spinoff here.

A tertiary package was announced for full-time, domestic students that offers support for those whose studies have stalled for 2020, and an increase in course-related costs.

Almost $9 billion has been paid out in the government wage subsidy scheme

The parent company of Burger King in New Zealand has been placed into receivership.

The Epidemic Response Committee returns this week. Today they compared notes with Australia’s chief medical operator Brendan Murphy, who landed himself in hot water when he remarked that a significant Tasmanian cluster was the result of an “illegal dinner party” between healthcare workers. The source of that cluster has not yet been verified. University of Otago epidemiologist Sir David Skegg also told the select committee he doesn’t believe health authorities have completed the tasks necessary to lower the alert level next week.

The Aged Care Association’s Simon Wallace says that rest homes are considering buying their own testing kits after the Ministry of Health turned down their request to test all new admissions.

New Zealand’s road toll for the long Easter weekend was zero for the first time since 2012.

Two leading epidemiologists have come to quite different conclusions about what should follow the four week lockdown. The University of Auckland’s Simon Thornley is advocating for a move to level two at the lockdown’s end, whereas the University of Otago’s Michael Baker, one of our most prominent public health experts, says it’s not plausible.

6.25pm: Today on The Spinoff

With the new school term starting tomorrow, check out what’s available on TVNZ’s new home-school channels.

Hollie Walker investigates the links between social isolation and loneliness and the risks they pose to our health and wellbeing.

The only group thirstier than Ashley Bloomfield stans are Outlander stans. Read Tara Ward’s recap of the latest action from 1771.

For more TV recommendations, Sam Brooks has reviewed season three of the popular Killing Eve as well as the new rom-com thriller from its creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Run.

The annual 48Hours film competition won’t be stopped, even by a global pandemic. More details on how to enter here. Registration is free.

In our newest video series, Final Mix, host Yadana Saw takes hip-hop duo Church & AP for a blat in a moderately priced-car to road test their new single ‘Aston Martin’ (filmed pre-lockdown, of course).

Glenn Colquhoun offers to make Jesus a sandwich in today’s Lockdown Letter.

5.50pm: More on tertiary package

The Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins, has expanded on the domestic tertiary student package announced by the prime minister today.

“Covid-19 is impacting students’ ability to financially contribute to and continue their studies. They are facing additional personal costs associated with study in a different way while having fewer opportunities to work to support their study,” Hipkins said in a media release

“Domestic students who are enrolled in full-time tertiary study can access these supports from tomorrow, Wednesday 15 April.” He says it applies to those studying at university, polytechs, or private training establishments this year whether they are enrolled already or planning to enrol.

The measures include:

Increasing the student loan amount available for course-related costs for full-time students from $1,000 to $2,000, on a temporary basis;

Continuing support payments for students unable to study online for up to eight weeks;

Where students receive partial tuition fee refunds in 2020 because their course has been discontinued due to Covid-19, this will not affect their future entitlement to student loans, and;

Where students are unable to complete a course of study in 2020 due to Covid-19, this will not affect their entitlement to Fees Free tertiary study.

Hipkins says that a second package will be announced to “prepare the system” in anticipation of  greater numbers of New Zealanders looking to retrain. The package come at a cost of $133 million in operation funding and capital expenditure.

5.40pm: April 14 mapped and charted

Click to view. Illustration: Simon Chesterman

Chris McDowall’s updated interactive maps and charts for today can be found here.

4.30pm: Robertson says treasury scenarios show value of going hard and early

Joining the prime minister at today’s media conference, finance minister Grant Robertson discussed the economic scenarios released by the New Zealand Treasury this morning, which explored possible impacts based on different times spent at different alert levels, the state of the global economy and the fiscal response from the government.

Although they are not forecasts, Robertson said the scenarios show that government was right in its decision to go hard and go early in the fight against Covid-19.

“They show that the best protection for the economy is to fight the virus.”

When asked about the likelihood of achieving the treasury’s best case scenario where unemployment was kept under 10%, Robertson said “the whole point of the wage subsidy scheme has been to keep people connected to their jobs … We now want as we move through the different levels of the framework be able to establish more economic activity, have people coming back into work and at the same time working on those recovery plans that start to redeploy people to different industries.”

Further support for business would be announced this week, including “how we use the tax system to continue to support small businesses. Beyond that, the focus has to be how we position for recovery,” Robertson said. He added that the ministry was looking to develop different sector packages for hard-hit industries.

Read more on the range of scenarios modelling the potential impact of Covid-19 on the economy here.

4.10pm: Prime minister on ‘our deadliest day to date’

Appearing for her weekly post-Cabinet press conference today, the prime minister spoke of the “sad and sobering reminder” of the need to stay the course during alert level four. “We always knew there would be more deaths, even at level four, especially in cases when the virus enters vulnerable community like an aged care facility,” she said. “It is a reminder of how much worse the spread and death toll would be had we not taken the actions we’ve taken to break the chain of transmission.”

Ardern said she had spoken frequently today with director general of health Ashley Bloomfield, who she said has initiated a review into aged care facilities where Covid-19 has been present. “Covid-19 is present in less than 1% of our aged care facilities, a stark contrast to the situation in many other countries, but as we have seen at Rosewood, we now know how devastating it can be when it gets there. She said the review would look at Rosewood but also at facilities where Covid-19 had been successfully contained.

She addressed comments from a number of public figures suggesting the government should take it’s “foot off the pedal” in light of the recent decline in cases. “As the director general said, we are successfully over the peak. That’s not the same as being out of the woods.”

Emphasising the need to continue to adhere to the rules under lockdown, Adern confirmed there had been 1,452 breaches under level four, with police making 169 prosecutions. She said thousands of motorists were stopped at 661 road checkpoints over the Easter long weekend, adding that the Easter road toll was zero for the first time since 2012.

On the subject of tertiary education, Ardern announced a new raft of measures to support those in trades and training. An immediate package of support for students will include increased course-related costs from $1000 to $2000 for full-time students; student support allowances and loans will continue for students unable to study online for up to eight weeks; where students receive partial refunds in 2020 because their course has been discontinued due to Covid-19, this will not affect future entitlements; and where students are unable to complete a course of study in 2020, this will not affect their entitlement to fees-free study.

In answer to a question about the NZME redundancies and wage cuts announced today (see 9.10am update) and the wider impact on media, Ardern said the government was “looking at bringing in a response to that very shortly. The first stage will be triaging before we look to longer-term solutions to take us beyond the Covid environment.”

3.30pm: Māori still holding government to account

Te Roopu Whakakaupapa Urutā, the national Māori pandemic group, has released a statement with the plea: “The pandemic response cannot be allowed to cause inequitable unintended and long-lasting impacts to peoples’ health and well-being, income and employment support, whānau, Hapū, Iwi and community connection, or access to Te Ao Māori. This requires a comprehensive approach across government, effective immediately, that considers all aspects of Māori health and wellbeing, rather than a narrow preoccupation with the direct impacts of COVID-19.”

The statement referenced three principles: Mana motuhake (self-determination), Mana taurite (equity) and Mana whakaora (healing).

While Covid-19 continues to effect black, hispanic and native communities in the US disproportionately, Māori infection rates have remained lower than the population because of limited travel to isolated regions with high Māori populations and measures such as iwi border controls.

It remains to be seen whether the chorus of voices, including academics (see 7.50am update) and business leaders, calling for an early lift of alert level four, or an immediate return to alert level two on April 23, have factored in vulnerable communities and whether they’re able to survive anything other than total elimination of the virus.

2.30pm: Here’s what the numbers look like

Total active and recovered Covid-19 cases in New Zealand, April 14. (Image: Chris McDowall)

More of Chris McDowall’s data visualisations to come later in the day.

View yesterday’s New Zealand cases mapped and charted here.

2.05pm: Bloomfield on health, the economy and wellbeing

A quick rewind to earlier today at the Covid-committee, when Simon Bridges asked Ashley Bloomfield about questions that have been raised around the “trade-off, bluntly” between economic and public health imperatives. The answer was interesting, and bears repeating at length.

Those considerations had been “fundamental” to decision making around the alert levels, said Bloomfield. “I think one of the things that annoys people about public health is we constantly use this term, ‘the determinants of health’. We take this broad perspective about the importance of employment, of education, of a good and safe income, of cultural factors, and all these wider things. I tend to talk about them as ‘the determinants of wellbeing’, because I think that health is an outcome, but it’s also an enabler of general wellbeing.”

Bloomfield drew attention to the controversial piece published this morning calling the lockdown an overreaction (see 7.50am), and was surprisingly conciliatory. “We agree on a number of things … Economic and social wellbeing are fundamental to good health, so that’s very much part of our approach.”

1.40pm: Private function was a stag party

Asked by a reporter whether the cluster related to an unspecified private function in Auckland involved a stag party, Bloomfield gave his shortest answer of the day: “That’s my understanding.” Asked later whether he had changed his stance on detailing the information around the cluster, he said he had not, but: “I was specifically asked the question and I replied because I knew the information.”

Meanwhile, the national state of emergency has been extended for another seven days.

1.35pm: ‘Yes, we’ve passed the peak’

In response to questions at today’s press conference, Ashley Bloomfield said: “I think it’s clear that we are past the peak under this alert level.”

He added: “The key information we are looking for now is, for each of those new cases, we want to know very quickly where they have come from, and if we can’t immediately link them to an extant case or cluster, then we need to do a pretty forensic analysis and find out very quickly where they’ve come from, and have a very quick and close look at all the possible contacts …

“Yes, we’ve passed the peak, that seems to be clear now. We will be more confident once we know about each of those new cases that has been appearing from the last week and as we go into this week, and also if we continue to get reasonable testing rates of people with any symptoms and we’re still not finding any cases that will provide us with greater reassurance.”

Part of that reassurance depends on testing across the country. On testing across regions, Bloomfield said he’d asked DHBs in regions with lower testing  to apply “a really low threshold” so that anyone with even low-level respiratory symptoms should be tested.

On two DHB catchments with high Māori populations, Tairāwhiti and Whanganui, which have reported low testing as well as a low number of cases, Bloomfield said: “I think the main reason for this, they simply have a lower number of cases. All of our cases have been from people coming in from overseas and or spread from those people. Ultimately the index case was imported from overseas. I think it’s just that there has been less travel to those regions.”

Bloomfield said testing across ethnic groups wasn’t “exactly in proportion” to the population, but it was close. “We will be looking over this week for a good spread of testing by both region and ethnicity to make sure we’re not under-testing in certain populations.”

In response to comments earlier today by Sir David Skegg, who told the Epidemic Response select committee he doesn’t believe health authorities have completed the tasks necessary to lower the alert level next week (see 12.00pm), Bloomfield said: “We are confident in the extent of and the pace of our contact tracing. We’ve got some analysis coming through about what the current speed is with which people who are contacts are identified and tested and we’ve seen that time decline.”

He added: “Likewise, Professor Sir David talked about the surveillance testing and making sure we’re very deliberate about getting wide testing across a range of population groups. And that’s why we’re increasing the testing this week, to complement the over 60,000 we’ve already tested.”

1.15pm: Four further deaths, 17 new cases

There have been four further deaths in New Zealand related to Covid-19. Three involve people who were residents of the Rosewood aged residential care in Christchurch, and another, a man in his 70s, died in Wellington, Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health, has announced at today’s daily briefing at the Beehive. It means nine people have now died with Covid-19 in New Zealand.

“It is a sobering reminder of what is at stake here,” he said.

Two men in their 90s and a man in his 80s died in Burwood Hospital in Christchurch, while a man in his 70s died after a substantial stay in Wellington hospital. The three men from Rosewood had underlying health issues and confirmed cases of Covid-19. The man in Wellington had been in ICU for some time.

“We have cases to date in six aged residential care facilities, this is out of a total of over 650 facilities nationwide,” said Bloomfield.

“The fact that we have had relatively few of our facilities affected by this virus, in quite a stark contrast to many other countries, I think is testament to the work they have been doing. To emphasise, we have been working with them very closely since early on in this outbreak.”

There are 17 new cases of Covid-19.

This means the 20 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, 19 and, today, 17. The total cases now stand at 1,366.

There have been 628 recoveries. “Our recovered cases now firmly dominated our cases overall,” said Bloomfield.

There are 15 people in hospital with Covid-19, including three in ICU, in Middlemore, Dunedin and North Shore. The person in Dunedin remains in critical condition.

Yesterday 1,572 tests were processed, another low number, reflecting activity on the long weekend. The rolling seven day average is 3,039 and in total 64,399 tests have been completed.

Of the cluster in Christchurch, Bloomfield said: “Every new arrival into an aged care facility goes into isolation for 14 days, there are no shared meals happening in the facilities and no visiting allowed at the moment. I’ve asked all of our DHBs to work with each of the facilities in their region to ensure they have good policies and procedures and access and supply lines to the PPE they need, and to identify what other support those facilities may need to help ensure we keep that high level of care and preventing Covid-19 getting into those facilities.”

There is a low threshold for testing any residents who might be symptomatic and any new arrivals, said Bloomfield. “If they have any symptoms whatsoever, a precautionary approach is taken: they are tested and are not allowed into the facility unless they have tested negative. There is also a low threshold for testing staff, and staff who are sick have to stay home and there is very careful observation of symptoms of staff.”

You can watch the briefing here:

12.25pm: Almost $9b paid out in government wage subsidy scheme

Minster of finance Grant Robertson told the Epidemic Response Committee that as of 11pm on April 9, the government’s wage subsidy scheme had paid out $8.9 billion to New Zealand businesses. He said this money was supporting 1,472,788 people – 1.2 millon of whom are employees and around 180,000 of whom are self-employed.

Asked about the news of redundancies at NZME, Robertson urged the committee to be cautious about ascribing every job loss and business failure to Covid-19. “The media sector is one where the patient had preexisting conditions,” he said.

12.15pm: Burger King owner goes into receivership

The parent company of Burger King in New Zealand has been placed into receivership, reports the NZ Herald. Burger King restaurants have been closed during the lockdown, and receiver Brendon Gibson of KordaMentha said this has had a significant impact on the business. The shareholding companies in receivership are Tango Finance Limited, Tango New Zealand Limited and Antares New Zealand Holdings Limited.

In a letter to staff seen by the Herald, chief executive Michelle Alexander said the government wage subsidy had helped the company pay staff but there was not sufficient cash flow to pay creditors or rent. In the letter, Alexander said the aim of putting the business into receivership was to restart it and then find a new owner.

Read the full story on NZ Herald

12.00pm: Skegg fears authorities playing ‘Russian roulette’

University of Otago epidemiologist Sir David Skegg has told the select committee he doesn’t believe health authorities have completed the tasks necessary to lower the alert level next week. Unless an expanded and improved contact tracing system is in place and the results of surveillance studies are known by the time cabinet meets next Monday, he said they would be “playing Russian roulette with the health of New Zealanders” by deciding to lower the alert level at midnight next Wednesday. Comparing the differing New Zealand and Australian responses to Covid-19, Skegg pointed out that Australia’s measures (roughly equivalent to our level 3) are likely to be in place for at least six months, while he supports New Zealand moving to level 2 as soon as contact tracing and surveillance measures are strong enough.

Asked about these concerns by committee chairman Simon Bridges, finance minister Grant Robertson said he was confident that cabinet would have sufficient information to make a decision by next Monday.

11.10am: Bloomfield outlines what’s needed to leave level four

“Elimination is the goal,” said the director general of public health, Ashley Bloomfield, when asked about the criteria for exiting alert level four at today’s Epidemic Response Committee. “It’s not necessarily getting to zero, it’s getting to a very small number of cases and a really clear understanding of what those cases are, and having them well ringfenced.” He continued: “Also, a high degree of confidence that our testing is picking up those cases, that there aren’t other unidentified little outbreaks out there that we aren’t aware of … Keeping the testing numbers up even with the lower levels of respiratory illness in the community will be fundamental to us saying, yes, from a public health perspective it’s safe to head down out of alert level four.”

Bloomfield reinforced comments made by his Australian counterpart Brendan Murphy saying that good contact tracing with rapid identification could be the most effective tool to eliminate Covid-19 and move New Zealand out of alert level four. “I think that can set us up to relax the current restrictions,” he said, adding that rapid contact tracing could be even more effective than a vaccine in eliminating Covid-19. Bloomfield also said the decision to move out of alert level four would not just be based on a health perspective, but would factor in multiple determinants. “We take this broad perspective of employment, of good safe income, of cultural factors … economic and social wellbeing are fundamental to good health,” he said.

In response to a question from Paul Goldsmith about easing restrictions on sections on the economy, Bloomfield said there would need to be fundamental changes to social distancing measures along with contact tracing, which he said would be the new baseline. He was then pressed on the different approaches taken in New Zealand and Australia, which some of the committee argued had yielded a similar public health outcome. In response to an assertion by Bloomfield that the New Zealand and Australian Covid-19 approaches were strikingly similar, David Seymour asked if he would say that to the New Zealanders who had lost their livelihoods while their Australian counterparts had been able to continue working for the same public health outcome. Bloomfield said this was a critical difference, but that both countries took different steps based on the data and evidence available at the time.

11.00am: The day ahead

A slightly different shape to things today. The director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, will give the regular 1pm update. Jacinda Ardern will speak to media at around 4pm, following a meeting of the full cabinet. We’ll have updates from both here.

10.30am: Physical distancing here to stay, says Australia’s chief medical officer

Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy has told the Epidemic Response Committee he believes “there will always need to be some degree of physical distancing” until a vaccine for Covid-19 is available. As one example, he said this means he can’t envision the reopening of nightclubs or big music festivals in Australia “for the foreseeable future”. Outlining Australia’s response to the pandemic, Murphy said the country was pursuing an “aggressive suppression” strategy, but he was skeptical that full elimination was a realistic possibility. He said their comparatively looser physical distancing measures (they’re at approximately “level 3 to 3.5”, Ashley Bloomfield has said for context) had been designed to remain in place for some months. Australia currently has just over 6,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, Murphy said, with the vast majority of those being returning travellers and their close contacts.

9.30am: Treasury releases stark unemployment projections

Treasury has just published new scenarios projecting possible impacts of the Covid-19 measures on the New Zealand economy. The five scenarios – plus sub-scenarios – all present “a significant hit on the New Zealand economy”, said finance minister Grant Robertson.

The scenarios range from, at best, unemployment remaining below 10% and returning to 5% in 2021. The worst case scenario imagines unemployment rising as high as 26%. Treasury suggests economic growth measured against 2019 will not be seen until 2024.

The latest unemployment data is expected this afternoon.

The Treasury findings are based on how long the country remains under the Covid-19 alert levels, and are “guided by a range of previously released public health modelling”.

Robertson said: “These should not be taken as any guide as to the government’s thinking or decision on changing alert levels. That decision will be taken on April 20 as the prime minister has foreshadowed.

The Treasury release includes an elaboration of its assumptions around the impact of each alert level on economic output. Specifically:

Alert Level 1 reduces output by 5-10%

Alert Level 2 reduces output by 10-15%

Alert Level 3 reduces output by 25%

Alert Level 4 reduces output by 40%

A note in the finance minister’s press release suggest there will be no change to the budget date. “Fiscal forecasts, including for measures like the government’s operating balance and net debt, will be released as normal in the Budget on May 14.”

View the Treasury scenarios here, and a fuller analysis of the scenarios from Alex Braae on The Spinoff here.

9.10am: NZME announces redundancies

NZME, publisher of the NZ Herald and operator of radio stations Newstalk ZB, The Hits, Coast and many others, has announced this morning that 200 people – 15% of its staff – have now been made redundant. This figure includes the redundancies that have already been announced in the last couple of weeks, as well as existing vacancies that will no longer be filled. The company expects advertising revenue this month to be down about 50% on April last year. The news was made public as part of a wider announcement made this morning to the NZX. All remaining staff have been asked the operate on a reduced salary over the next 12 weeks. The cuts are taking place over and above the previous closure of Radio Sport and the downsizing of the sports department generally. According to the release, they will only partially offset the drop in revenue, and further cost saving initiatives are possible.

9.00am: Return of the Zoom select committee

The Epidemic Response Committee returns this morning to kick off another week of Zoom meetings. First up at 10 they’ll be comparing notes with Australia’s chief medical operator Brendan Murphy, before New Zealand’s own director general of health Ashley Bloomfield joins them from around 11. Then from 12 they’ll be putting the hard questions on the economy to finance minister Grand Robertson, and finally Rob Fyfe. We’ll have updates throughout the morning, as well as a link to the stream where you can watch the whole thing live. 

8.40am: Rest homes want testing for all new residents

Rest homes are considering buying their own testing kits after the Ministry of Health turned down their request to test all new admissions, the Aged Care Association’s Simon Wallace says. Aged care facilities and their residents have proven uniquely vulnerable to Covid-19: four have reported outbreaks so far, and three of the country’s five Covid-19 deaths to date have been rest home residents. The association wants all new admissions across the country to be tested – a total of around 700 tests a week – but Wallace told RNZ the association’s request to the MoH has “fallen on deaf ears”. On Morning Report this morning, prime minister Jacinda Ardern said rest homes shouldn’t have to buy their own testing kits, and said she would seek advice on the matter.

Read the full story on RNZ

8.20am: Easter road toll zero

A silver lining to all the pain and disruption of Covid-19 and level 4 lockdown: the country recorded a total of zero road deaths over the Easter period for only the second time since records began, the NZTA has reported. In case it comes up as a question in your online pub quiz this week, the last and only other time the Easter road toll was zero was back in 2012. Last year’s Easter road toll was four.

7.50am: Auckland epidemiologist advocates for level two, Otago’s Baker disagrees

A division exists between two epidemiologists who have been widely quoted through the Covid-19 outbreak. Stuff has a story this morning quoting the University of Auckland’s Simon Thornley as advocating for a move to level two following the end of the lockdown’s end.

“The data is now clear, this is not the disaster we feared and prepared for,” he told Stuff. “Elimination of this virus is likely not achievable and is not necessary.”

The latter statement contradicts the position of the government, the Ministry of Health and Dr Michael Baker, one of the most prominent public health experts through the crisis so far. He was interviewed by Corin Dann on Morning Report just after 7am, and reiterated that elimination was, in fact, achievable. “The goal is elimination – that’s no transmission in New Zealand,” Baker said.

When asked whether he believed we were tracking towards elimination with the recent decline in positive tests, he expressed cautious optimism, but said there was not yet sufficient evidence to determine that. “We haven’t had the data presented to tell us that,” he said. ‘I think we are very close, but we haven’t had the data presented that way on the ministry website.”

In terms of what lies on the other side of lockdown, he said that level two was not plausible. “We’re not going from lockdown to nothing,” he said, adding that it would be “business as near to normal as possible. But it will be different.” Level two was attainable, he said, but cautioned that “it could take many months”.

On Breakfast on TVNZ1, professor Shaun Hendy of the University of Auckland presented a different argument to his colleague Thornley, making the case for an extended lockdown, should it be required.

“The risk is, if we come out too early, then we’re going to be faced with another level four lockdown in a few months,” said Hendy. “From a point of view of the country, more certainty now might be preferable to having that uncertainty hanging over us for the rest of the year.”

7.10am: The Bulletin wrap of the morning’s NZ news

Taken from our essential daily 7am news roundup – sign up for The Spinoff’s newsletters here

There has been an increasing amount of commentary about the state of the environment during and after the pandemic. Air quality in cities has improved dramatically, carbon emissions are way down, birds are having a much better time of it, and rubbish volumes are likely to fall over the coming months. But before anyone gets carried away with excitement, these aren’t necessarily causes for celebration, because of the massive economic dislocation and insecurity that has accompanied the changes.

It’s for these sorts of reasons that climate change minister James Shaw is not celebrating the emissions cuts in the slightest. In an interview with Q+A over the weekend, he described Covid-19 as a “terrible” outcome for the environment, because it will put pressure on money needed for emissions measures, and because attention will be taken away from fighting climate change at a crucial moment for the world. “The great risk is we take our eye off the ball of the long term while we’re dealing with the short term challenge.”

There was an example of that in last week’s Bulletin, which linked to the NZ Herald’s story on Auckland Council deliberations about future infrastructure projects – one councillor using the word “boutique” to describe the importance they placed on climate change in those discussions. It might matter hugely to the liveability of the planet over the next 100 years, but that’s a more difficult case to make when confronted with immediate problems like pandemics and mass unemployment. This will be particularly relevant in infrastructure development decisions, with the rapid rollout of projects being seen as a key part of the recovery. As environmental planning professor Iain White writes on The Spinoff this morning, the nature of ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects is that they reveal both the measurement systems and priorities of the past, and not necessarily the future. “In New Zealand we can easily provide evidence on roads or pipes, while things like wellbeing, the arts, cycling, or the future impacts of climate change are more intangible,” writes White. It’s a very thoughtful piece, and I encourage you to read it.

There’s also the risk that measures taken to fight Covid-19 will cut against the sort of societal and behavioural changes needed to fight climate change. Take public transport, for example. Auckland was making great progress up until this year in getting people onto buses and trains, rather than using their own cars. But many of those buses at rush hour were so jammed full of people that at some stops they couldn’t pick any more up – it goes without saying how incongruous that would be in a world of physical distancing.

At the same time, we’re coming up to a series of monumental decisions on climate change that will shape New Zealand’s response for decades. Eloise Gibson at Stuff has written about the Climate Change Commission, who are tasked with setting emissions budgets. It was already going to be a horribly complicated process, but now will be much more so. To put in context how these sorts of complications play out, look at the oil price – with incredibly weak global demand right now, it has crashed, which also means that the business case for alternative and renewable energy has weakened.

Will there be opportunities in recovery? Perhaps, and there’s certainly no harm in talking about them. Writing on Newsroom, Xero founder Rod Drury argued that it was the perfect time to be talking about how to make the economy greener. One example he talked about – which might be a bit fanciful, but let’s dream – was that New Zealand should make itself a world leader in electric aviation, because the overwhelming majority of air travel here is short-haul. And writing on Stuff, James Every-Palmer QC argues that there is a moral responsibility to use the massive amounts of money being borrowed by the government right now to prioritise climate-friendly projects, because it is the young people of today who will spend their taxpaying years footing the bill.

If you’re a new reader of The Spinoff, you might still be confused about who or what we are. Welcome, it’s great to have you here, and to explain how we operate, managing editor Duncan Greive has written this explainer. And if you’ve been making a contribution in the form of Spinoff Members, we’re very grateful for it, and will be using those contributions to produce more high quality writing and journalism.

Each day of the Easter weekend saw new Covid-19 cases being announced, with none of the updates suggesting it was getting out of control. Sadly, there have been several more deaths, bringing the total toll to five so far. The latest numbers have been charted here, with 1349 cases in total, and 546 recoveries to date. Other news updates from Monday and the weekend can be found here, and we’ve transcribed a series of questions and answers from the public to Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

Repatriation flights are continuing for New Zealanders overseas. Radio NZ has reported on the latest efforts to get people home from India, with the government strongly encouraging those there to take them up now, on the grounds that it is totally unknown when commercial international flights will return. On the other side of the world, a flight out of Peru is expected to leave this morning, with dozens of New Zealanders on board.

It could easily be overtaken by events, but right now schools are scheduled to reopen for some students on April 29. The NZ Herald’s Simon Collins has reported on the announcement, with a lot of potential scenarios still being worked through – such as only the children of essential workers coming to class, or only teachers coming in to provide distance learning while using the school’s broadband network. Regional reopening is also a possibility, and would likely depend on whether regional alert levels are put in place later this month – a decision on extending the lockdown will be announced on April 20. Even if the April 29 date is met, it is still going to be a very long time before normal school life continues for teachers, parents and students

A police chase over the weekend has resulted in several serious injuries. While chases happen regularly, you might have thought that they’d be abandoned during the lockdown, because of the very high risks associated with the policing tactic. Not so, as the police told the NZ Herald – “if these people were complying with the conditions of the coronavirus lockdown, this would not have happened,” said Inspector Daniel Meade.

There has been a lot of conjecture over the weekend about whether or not the Christchurch mosque shooter visited Al-Noor before the attacks. Newshub’s Patrick Gower reports on testimony from survivors, who say he joined them several times before March 15 – potentially to learn the layout of the mosque. However, this Stuff story takes a very different angle, with the police saying there was no evidence at all he had been inside the mosque before March 15. The reason this is only coming out now is that there were previously fears that these reports could jeopardise the trial process. A note on the content of these stories – the Newshub one in particular goes into some detail about the timeline of the attack, so please be advised that it will be distressing.

6.30am: Spain peeks out from under its lockdown

Spain became the first hard-hit country since China to attempt a partial re-emergence from lockdown yesterday. As many as 300,000 non-essential workers were allowed to get back to their jobs, though this number was deflated due to the Easter public holiday. Police handed out masks to users of public transport, as the country saw its daily death toll from the virus fall to 517, and infections saw their lowest proportional increase yet, rising to 169,496 from 166,019. The reopening is not economy-wide, with bars and restaurants still closed for another two weeks at least, but will nonetheless be watched closely to see whether an easing can be achieved without reigniting the outbreak.

A report suggests as many as half of Europe’s deaths associated with Covid-19 are happening in rest homes. The data is preliminary, and hard to compare across borders due to differing reporting standards, but the combination of vulnerability to the virus, relative ease of spread and, in some cases, short staffing due to infection leaves the population uniquely exposed. The study compared mortality data to a baseline year, and suggests that countries like the UK, which only counts deaths in hospitals in its official toll, could be significantly understating its true impact.

The scale of what Covid-19 does to the world economy won’t be clear for some years. But already certain themes are becoming clear. One is the tendency of the virus to exacerbate pre-existing motion. Some of this is relatively small, with viral misinformation leading to a spate of vandalism of 5G towers, both in NZ and around the world, along with a somewhat staggering 29% of Americans believing Covid-19 was made in a lab.

Others are more long-term, with it having the effect of accelerating trends already in progress to warp speed. The media, already in trouble, is likely to fall apart, for example. Yet others will benefit – perhaps none more than Amazon, which was already causing major problems for physical retail. Recode’s Jason Del Ray reports that Amazon “already accounted for nearly 40 percent of all US online retail sales — that’s around eight times more than its next competitor, Walmart. Before the pandemic, the US e-commerce industry only represented between 10 percent and 15 percent of overall retail. Now, that percentage seems likely to grow, setting up Amazon to have a bigger advantage over most other retailers.” With consumers likely to avoid retail environments and favour home delivery for years to come, Amazon looks set only swell in scale.

Finally, the big hard numbers: 1.9m infections, 118,304 deaths and 444,492 recoveries. The Johns Hopkins site now has a larger set of data, along with new maps, and some testing figures. The Guardian has a wrap of the main country-by-country numbers in bullet points.

6.00am: Yesterday’s key NZ stories

There were 19 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, taking the total number 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

Catch up on all of yesterday’s main stories here.



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