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The director general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield speaks to media during a press conference at the Beehive (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
The director general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield speaks to media during a press conference at the Beehive (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

SocietyApril 15, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, April 15: 20 new cases; ministers to take a pay cut

The director general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield speaks to media during a press conference at the Beehive (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
The director general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield speaks to media during a press conference at the Beehive (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

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 the afternoon/evening shift: Jihee Junn

7pm: The day in sum

There are 20 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand – six confirmed and 14 probable. That brings the total number of cases to 1,386.

The curve has started to slope down as the statistics show more recovered than active cases for the first time.

A new cluster has emerged, taking the number of significant clusters to 16. The new one is in Auckland and is related to an aged care facility. More information on the new cluster will be provided tomorrow.

There are 13 people in hospital including three in ICUs (Middlemore, Dunedin and the North Shore). Two of these – one in Dunedin, one at North Shore– are in critical condition.

Ministers and top public servants will take a 20% pay cut, a move the prime minister said “was about leadership”.

Businesses to move from “essential” to “safe” economic activity under alert level three. More guidance on this will be revealed tomorrow.

6:30pm: Today on The Spinoff

Media companies and broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi appeared in today’s Epidemic Response Committee to discuss the impact Covid-19 on publishers and broadcasters. To save you from having to sit through the meeting yourselves, here’s a highlights package we prepared earlier.

School-aged kids at home? A reminder that you don’t need to turn your home into a lockdown school, says Emily Writes. 

Paul Henry is returning to TV, and apparently, he’s basically woke now.

Anxious and stressed? Sir John Kirwan’s virtual mental health app wants to help you get through your lockdown angst (for free).

Yes, you can still use your library during lockdown – here’s how

We’re watching more free-to-air TV, but which shows are we actually watching? 

Lockdown Letters #20 by Fiona Farrell

Māori Made Easy With Me: Week three, day three. Ka pai for sticking with it!

4.30pm: Trade initiative launched between New Zealand and Singapore

A new trade initiative with Singapore has been announced to ensure “the free flow of essential goods”. The aim will be to secure “supply chain connectivity and the removal of blockages to trade” for a list of essential products that includes medicine, PPE, medical/surgical equipment, nutritional products, and hygiene supplies. It also calls for participants not to apply export restrictions on food and beverage products and to facilitate their trade.

Trade and export minister David Parker, along with his Singaporean counterpart Chan Chun Sing, said: “This new initiative builds on the joint statement issued by Singapore and New Zealand last month, which has now been joined by seven other countries.”

“The declaration setting out the initiative includes a list of Covid-19 related products for which New Zealand and Singapore undertake to remove tariffs, not to impose export restrictions and to remove non-tariff barriers. It also includes an undertaking to keep supply chains operating effectively for these products.”

The initiative has been described as an “open plurilateral” initiative, which means other countries can join at any point, with the two ministers encouraging other nations to do so as soon as possible.

4pm: Businesses to move from ‘essential’ to ‘safe’ under alert level three

Provided we manage to get out of lockdown and down to alert level three, finance minister Grant Robertson has said the focus for businesses will be to shift away from “essential” economic activity to “safe” economic activity.

RNZ reports that Robertson made his comments in a speech to Business New Zealand this afternoon which follows an announcement made earlier today that small businesses will get a $3 billion boost through tax breaks.

Further guidance for businesses on what coming out of alert level four will look will be unveiled tomorrow.

3.30pm: The latest numbers

Here are the top-line numbers from today. The downward slope on the active cases is compelling. For the first time, the statistics show more recovered than active cases. The number of active cases dropped again, from 729 to 649 this morning. The downward trend that started around April 8 continues.

See the rest of Chris McDowall’s interactive maps and charts for today here.

1.15pm: Ministers, top public servants to take pay cut

The PM has announced that ministers and top public servants will take a 20% pay cut. She said that while it won’t shift the government’s fiscal position, the decision was about showing leadership.

“I absolutely accept that this is not going to change the government books,” said Ardern.

“But for us it was about leadership. A lot of people are taking a huge hit right now. I do not want the people who feel that to be the people on the front line, our lower and middle income earners. It should be about leadership and that means the people at the top.”

Ardern said she gave National leader Simon Bridges a heads-up about the decision, and said that he had indicated that he would following suit.

The PM also spoke about some of the discussions that have been taking place at the Epidemic Response Committee, which has focused on media.

Ardern said there were separate packages in development for media entities that are not related to packages around public service broadcasting. “TVNZ’s slightly different, of course, but they also are in a different boat when it comes to the role of government and the relationship there with TVNZ.”

Ardern said, as she did during the Bauer closures, that problems the media were encountering were exacerbated by Covid-19, not happening because of it. “We are in conversation with them around what is necessary… to ensure there is robust journalism and access to information for the public.”

There will be a first, immediate tranche to help the industry. “Not too far down the track, some weeks later, we will have a second tranche.”

Ardern said that throughout the Covid-19 crisis the government would continue to advertise on Facebook, as it was effective in reaching New Zealanders. That follows the repeated suggestion from media bosses that digital advertising spending be redirected away from global social media giants.

The PM was also asked about commercial rents, and in particular the case of a tenant who had their rent raised. On the topic of further aid for tenants, Ardern urged landlords to “just be a good human being.”

“It is utterly unfathomable, in this situation, to see some of what we’ve seen, including increases in commercial rents in a time like this.”

“Who is going to tenant [a commercial property] in the middle of level four? Take a long view.”

Ardern said she had received some good feedback about the home learning channels launched today, but was not specific.

She offered words of comfort to parents: “Don’t put too much pressure on yourselves, as parents, to be teachers,” she said. “Don’t be too hard on yourselves. They will be learning, even when you may not notice it.”

1.05pm: 20 new cases, no new deaths

There are 20 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, with six confirmed cases, and 14 probable. That brings the total number of cases to 1,386.

The number of recoveries is up by 100 to a total of 728 people. There have been no further deaths.

There are now 16 significant clusters, one more than yesterday. The new one is in Auckland, related to an aged care facility. More information on the new cluster will be provided tomorrow.

There are 13 people in hospital including three in ICUs (Middlemore, Dunedin and the North Shore. Two of these, one each in Dunedin and on the North Shore, are in critical condition.

2,100 tests were processed yesterday, bringing the total number of tests done to 66,499.

The total number of infected persons from the healthcare industry is 115.

“There is only a small number, less than five, where we can confirm that the worker was infected by the patient they were caring for,” said Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Of those cases, 22% were due to overseas travel, 46% were infected in the course of their work, and 39 of those are workers in aged care facilities and are part of those clusters.

On clusters, Dr Bloomfield said “we’re working our way back and looking at every new case since the first of April.”

Investigators are looking to see whether cases are linked to overseas travel or to clusters. Once they’re able to attribute a case to a cluster, the total case number of that cluster will go up, so if you see numbers increasing this doesn’t necessarily mean another person has been infected – just that another case has been linked to it.

As of today, 62 Pasifika individuals have Covid-19, but health officials can’t say how many of those are from the Marist cluster.

There has been a death at home of a man who is understood to have been self-isolating in Invercargill. Bloomfield said the ministry was still seeking information about that case and would update the death toll accordingly if it was found to be related to Covid-19.

Bloomfield spoke on alleged PPE shortages, and said that while there is plenty in the country he can’t speak to individual circumstances.

“What I’m not in a position to do is to be able to provide assurance of access of individual health workers to PPE in individual circumstances. Any health worker that has a concern about access to or use of PPE is able to and should escalate their concerns within their organisations. Their unions have the ability to support this escalation.”

“I know for a fact that any chief executive would take any concerns seriously and look into them.”

Bloomfield said health workers should only be recycling PPE if there is a shortage, which there isn’t. However, it follows repeated news stories suggesting a disconnect between Bloomfield’s messaging and what health workers on the ground are telling journalists.

12.35pm: Watch live: Dr Ashley Bloomfield updating case numbers

The 1pm press conference will be going ahead as normal today, and as always, you can watch it here:

Watch also: Media companies speaking to the Epidemic Response Committee

10.45am: Donald Trump stops funding for World Health Organisation

The president has just announced that the US will halt funding of the World Health Organisation.

He accused the UN organisation of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus”.

In long and rambling press briefings in recent weeks, Trump has launched verbal salvos at state governors, media, the Chinese government and the WHO.

It comes after Trump asserted “ultimate authority” over states in determining when lockdowns would end (see 6.40am).

Asked at the 1.00pm press conference about Donald Trump’s announcement, PM Jacinda Ardern said, “my view and the view of New Zealand and those engage directly with the WHO is that it’s an incredibly important body. At a time like this when we need to be sharing information, when we need advice we can rely on, the WHO has provided that, and we will continue to support it and we will continue to make our contribution.”

Dr Ashley Bloomfield added: “The global response to this pandemic will require a strong WHO, so it behoves all of us to [support it]. New Zealand I know will continue to play its part supporting the organisation actively, both globally and across the Pacific.”

10.20am: Hard truths for government from media industry critic 

Media commentator Gavin Ellis has told the Epidemic Response Committee that contraction in the sector is inevitable, and there are no guarantees that the media will survive “in a form suitable for a free and democratic country like our own.”

He said with crashing advertising revenue, many organisations are not in a position to survive the economic downturn. They came into the crisis with “no fat” to cut, said Ellis, and have had to slash jobs and salaries as a result.

It comes at a time in which digital impressions on news sites have skyrocketed, on both traditional and new media platforms. However, digital advertising revenue has not kept pace, with platforms like Google and Facebook hoovering up spending.

“It disturbs me that government use these digital platforms at an exponentially growing rate, and only a fraction of their digital spend is going to local media,” said Ellis.

Ellis also criticised the decision from the government to not classify magazines as an essential service, which has been pointed to by Bauer as a reason to slash its entire portfolio of magazines.

In setting out solutions, Ellis said the first step would be to help companies recover cashflow, particularly through the purchase of advertising.

Post-lockdown, he said the government needed to fast-track structural changes to the industry, and “side-step the Commerce Commission” to allow the merger between NZME and Stuff. He also suggested a change to the tax status of media organisations, describing them as “low profit, public interest entities.”

In response, the minister responsible for media has told the epidemic committee that a package for media is imminent.

“I’ve spoken with a large number of media bosses in the past week to get a gauge on where they’re at and what would help both in the short and long term,” said Kris Faafoi.

“The government is developing a short and long term package of support for the media industry to deal with the challenges that they’ve identified, that will meet hopefully the immediate needs and also deal with the longer term challenges that face media, and, importantly, sustainable journalism in the future. I’ll be able to announce, hopefully, the outcome of that work within the week.”

Stuff chief executive Sinead Boucher also spoke about the question of platforms like Facebook seeing massive advertising spending. She contested the idea that it was even the best place for advertising spending to go, saying the Stuff platform reached just as many New Zealanders through their various digital and physical properties.

“That would make an enormous difference on its own, on our ability to create local journalism,” she said about spending being redirected.

NZME managing editor Shayne Currie also spoke to the committee, highlighting the vital role media was playing in both testing the government’s approach to the Covid-19 crisis, and communicating public health information. He raised the Washington Post’s slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” as a point of inspiration.

Currie lamented the slashing back of NZME’s sports and magazine departments, and raised questions about whether community newspapers would even be able to be published after the lockdown, because of revenue declines. He dismissed the suggestion that the NZ Herald’s Premium paywall was a significant source of revenue for the company, saying the advertising model was still the basis of their business.

TVNZ’s Kevin Kenrick also took the opportunity to plug the value of media advertising, saying he could demonstrate to advertisers that they’d get a better chance of reaching viewers by spending on TVNZ on Demand, rather than Youtube.

The question of plurality of voices and media company sustainability was addressed by Mediaworks chief executive Michael Anderson. He said in his view, a world dominated by state broadcasting would not provide a plurality of voices, and said that the two concepts were inextricably linked. “If we keep trying to pull individual levers in this, there could be unintended consequences,” said Anderson.

He also addressed the cost cutting measures undertaken by the company, and current efforts to sell the TV arm of the business. “Everything that Mediaworks has been doing over the last couple of years has been trying to keep the company sustainable,” said Michael Anderson.

Faafoi also spoke about telecommunications, and his concerns about attacks on cellphone towers allegedly carried out by anti-5G activists.

9.50am: Watch live: Epidemic Response Committee watch the media

Coming up on the Epidemic Response Committee today, the media itself will be in the spotlight. Proceedings will be opened by academic and former NZ Herald editor Gavin Ellis, before a long list of media company representatives present their views.

Among the major topics of discussion will be whether a merger between NZME and Stuff now needs to happen, the collapse in advertising revenue currently facing the industry, the government’s plan for a massive merged TVNZ-RNZ public media entity, and the mass job losses that have already happened.

Plus, keep an eye out for The Spinoff’s managing editor Duncan Greive, who will be speaking at 12.55pm.

9.20am: A must-read about the US reopening

One of the world’s most lucid and thoughtful writers covering the pandemic right now is The Atlantic’s Ed Yong. His latest piece is a thorough exploration of the concept of ‘returning to normal’, and how for the US, that simply won’t ever happen. What Yong has done beautifully is to totally sidestep the various partisan arguments swirling through the country at the moment, and actually address how the virus is spreading, and how little is still known about how lethal it is. Beyond that, he’s looked at the massive looming crunch in medical supply chains, and how they’ll affect almost everyone with any illness at all. Here’s a brief excerpt that shows how the US’s problems have implications for us all:

Crucial medical drugs are also running out. According to a University of Minnesota analysis, about 40 percent of the 156 drugs that are essential parts of critical care are becoming limited. Many of these depend on supply chains that involve China (where the pandemic began), Italy (the hardest-hit region in Europe), or India (which halted several exports). These chains have been discharging their contents like a sputtering garden hose that has now begun to run dry. “The medium term is going to be particularly perilous,” said Nada Sanders, a professor of supply-chain management at Northeastern University. “Global demand is so high, and supply is so far behind, that it’s very hard to envision enough of a ramp-up.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that NYC has revised how they count coronavirus deaths, to include those who haven’t been tested but are strongly presumed to have died of Covid-19. As a result, their official death toll has now soared past 10,000.

8.45am: Mercy flight from Peru touches down

A repatriation flight from Peru touched down in Auckland this morning, bringing home about 60 New Zealanders who had been stuck in South America. There are now no commercial flights between New Zealand and South America, meaning options for getting home will now basically be non-existent for anyone still there. Other repatriation flights for New Zealanders overseas, including from India, are yet to be finalised.

8.20am: Calls for a domestic vaccine industry

A trio of scientists have called on the government to start funding domestic research and development for a vaccine against Covid-19, reports Stuff. It will likely be at least 18 months before any vaccine can be rolled out globally, and at this stage it is the clearest possible exit plan from the current physical distancing restrictions that are required. However, the scientists say that if New Zealand doesn’t at least participate in vaccine development, we run the risk of being at the back of the queue in a world full of demand.

7.50am: Level two plus? Bridges favours a wider reopening

National leader Simon Bridges has spoken in favour of a wider reopening of the economy when lockdown ends in an interview on RNZ. “I’m coming to a pretty clear view we should come out of lockdown next week,” he told Morning Report’s Corin Dann. He referred to an idea he attributed to Peter Gluckman, formerly the prime minister’s chief science advisor under National, of a “level two plus”.

“We can walk and chew gum at the same time on health and the economy,” he said. “I look at that Australian experience, where baristas are still making coffee, and builders are still building.”

For all that, he continued his stance of broadly endorsing the government’s response to Covid-19, and said he was “not suggesting we we’ll be at level two overnight”. When asked whether raising stimulus as high at $20bn was warranted, should unemployment near 10%, he replied “in general terms, yes”, indicating a consensus on continued spending to stare down the worst of Treasury’s economic projections.

7.20am: 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

The scenarios are in for how Treasury expects Covid-19 to affect GDP and unemployment rates, and they’re pretty bleak. You can read a report on them here, but in short, they take into account various conditions like the length of each period at different lockdown alert levels, how much additional stimulus money the government puts into the economy, and the effect Covid-19 has on the global economy.

The top line figure that many have picked up on is unemployment topping out at 26%, but it’s worth noting this is considered to be an absolute worst-case scenario. That is projected to occur if there is no additional government stimulus, and if we stay in level four and three for a year. Even so, one plank of that has already basically been ruled out by the government – Newshub reports that finance minister Grant Robertson has strongly signalled more stimulus money is on the way, on top of a further $3 billion package for small and medium businesses announced yesterday. Robertson also argued that by going harder on the lockdown earlier, New Zealand was in a better position to avoid being in a higher alert level for longer. Others have picked out the scenario that shows unemployment could perhaps be kept below 10% – that is based on the fairly optimistic position that we’ll spend most of this year at level one or two, along with absolutely whopping government stimulus spending.

The other important point about these scenarios is that they will not be the sole basis for how the government makes lockdown decisions. Robertson said they “should not be taken as any guide as to the government’s thinking or decision on changing alert levels.” In other words, the public health goals of the elimination strategy will continue to be the primary focus for the response.

All of this came out on a day in which the real economy took a beating, illustrating the stark percentages of unemployment rates with hundreds of job losses. One concern is that they came from across all sorts of sectors. Burger King’s parent company went into receivership, putting 2600 staff at risk. Telco 2Degrees made 120 workers redundant amid wider cost cutting measures. And media company NZME told the NZX that their workforce would be reduced by 15%, or about 200 jobs, with that made up of redundancies and unfilled positions being removed. These are just three examples that made the news on one particular day – there have been many more over recent weeks, and in many cases the job losses won’t have been reported.

The vast majority of New Zealand’s rest homes have not had Covid-19 cases, but the tragic case of the Rosewood cluster in Christchurch shows the risks. The facility has now had 6 fatalities, and as Newshub reports, it is leading to anger from family members who could not see their loved ones to say goodbye. The government has now indicated it will consider relaxing the current rules, which don’t really allow any visitors at all into rest homes, because older people are much more vulnerable to Covid-19. The latest updated charts on case numbers can be found here.

A package to support tertiary students has been announced by the government, reports Stuff. The package is worth about $130 million overall, and many of the changes are small technical fixes around access to student loans, or support for those who can’t study online. One big figure that was part of it – the borrowing limit for course related costs has been doubled to $2000. On that point, student magazines Critic and Salient have collaborated to canvass the views of the student community, with many expressing disappointment at the increase this will cause to student debt.

Meanwhile speaking of education, term 2 starts today. Obviously, kids won’t actually be going to school, but with that comes the launch of some new educational programming to support home learning. Tara Ward has outlined what’s going to be on the box, where and when it can be watched, what is and isn’t expected of parents, and what role Suzy Cato will play in it all.

Here’s another strong piece of country vs country analysis to share, from Newsroom’s Marc Daalder. It jumps off a press release from a group of dissenting academics, who say the current lockdown approach has gone too far relative to the harm that Covid-19 can cause. The criticism to that position primarily comes in the form of data which shows that most countries who went for looser lockdown measures are now seeing spikes in mortality. A seeming outlier that has been seized upon by the previously mentioned academics is Australia, which still has a relatively low death toll compared to the strength of their social restrictions. The counter argument to their position is put forward by Dr Siouxsie Wiles, who has taken their claims on point by point – it’s a pretty devastating rebuttal.

A short but interesting story that might give you a bit of hope – One News has wrapped some of the global efforts to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. It’s still likely to be a year away – and quite possibly longer – but what the story illustrates is that resources are being diverted towards the project. Some reports, like this one from Sky News, raise hopes of a vaccine by September this year, which would be the absolute best case scenario.

Newshub reports environmental campaigners are celebrating a win against a seabed mining operation off the Taranaki coast, which would have involved 50 million tonnes of iron sand being dug up each year. Various groups raised concerns that the area was home to native and protected species, and the operation would have been environmentally destructive. In related news, the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Hamish Rutherford reports oil company OMV are talking up the results of their latest exploration off the Taranaki coast, potentially finding the country’s first commercially viable hydrocarbon discovery in more than a decade.

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

6.40am: Trump in major dispute with governors over who has right to end lockdown

“We don’t have a king; we have a president,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told NBC’s Today show, after Trump claimed “ultimate authority” over when to end the lockdown. As with so many elements of the Covid-19 crisis, it has provided a moment of bipartisan unity amongst some governors, with Cuomo’s position echoed by Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan, who told CNN that Trump’s position was “not my understanding of the Constitution.” Legal experts have found Trump’s claim lacking in foundation, and were it pressed it has the potential to layer a constitutional crisis over the top of the health and economic crises gripping the US.

It comes as the US appears to be starting to get on top of its outbreak, with four days of declining national death tolls, and New York’s hospital admissions declined over the weekend. Spain, Austria and Italy all tentatively started the process of returning some people to work, as the latter’s new infections reached its lowest number in a month.

However, as with New Zealand, the world is starting to have its most authoritative economic forecasts land with a thud. The International Monetary Fund dubbed what we’re experiencing ‘the Great Lockdown’, saying it would rival the Great Depression in terms of its impact on the global economy. The fund revised its forecast from projecting growth of 3.3% to a contraction of -3%. This is an extraordinary event – during the depths of the GFC, the worst global decline was just -0.1%, in 2009. Eerily, it cautioned that even this could prove optimistic. “Much worse growth outcomes are possible and maybe even likely,” said Gita Gopinath, the IMF’s economic counsellor. Britain’s Office for Budgetary Responsibility went much further, predicting a 35% drop in GDP for the second quarter. The depths of the Great Depression saw a decline of just 10%.

The global number of infections stands at 1.97m, with deaths at 124,544, per Johns Hopkins. The US has returned 597,243 positive tests out of a total 2.9m administered.

6.00am: Yesterday’s key NZ stories

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.

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 yesterday 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 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 returned for the week. Yesterday 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 said 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 was 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, said it’s not plausible.

Read more on yesterday’s live updates

Keep going!