Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Kevin Stent – Pool/Getty Images)
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Kevin Stent – Pool/Getty Images)

SocietyJune 18, 2020

Live updates, June 18: One new case at border; National MP lobbied for Covid pair’s release

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Kevin Stent – Pool/Getty Images)
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Kevin Stent – Pool/Getty Images)

For all The Spinoff’s latest coverage of Covid-19 see here. Read Siouxsie Wiles’s work here. New Zealand is currently in alert level one – read about what that means here. For official government advice, see here.

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6.45pm: Military official was already in charge of isolation facilities

The military official who was announced yesterday as a fix-it man for the quarantine and border controls system was in fact in the role when the two women were granted leave to exit managed isolation and drive to Wellington, RNZ Checkpoint is reporting.

Yesterday PM Jacinda Ardern said Commodore Darryn (Digby) Webb, assistant chief of defence, would be brought in to oversee the managed isolation and quarantine facilities processes and audit the existing systems. However Webb has already been in the role for at least a month, according to the Checkpoint report.

6.10pm: The day in sum

New Zealand has one new Covid-19 case, a man in his 60s who arrived from Pakistan and who tested positive for the coronavirus at the border.

Ashley Bloomfield spent much of the day apologising for the quarantine lapses that led to yesterday’s spate of news stories. He said he’d taken responsibility to make sure the system is sorted “and we’re getting on and doing that”.

PM Jacinda Ardern said that while she has lost confidence in the border facilities for now, she still has confidence in the director general of health.

A homeless man spent two weeks in managed isolation at a five-star Auckland hotel after pretending to be a recently-returned overseas passenger, National MP Michael Woodhouse claimed.

National MP Chris Bishop lobbied for the early release of the two women at the centre of yesterday’s news, it was revealed in the house. Bishop later said the revelation was a “desperate smear” by the government.

The run of quarantine failures won’t affect plans for a trans-Tasman bubble, Winston Peters insisted.

The economy shrank by 1.6% in the first three months of the year, it was announced. The figure represented the largest economic decline in 29 years.

5.30pm: Today’s charts

We had a new case today, so we also have new charts from our data-viz whizzes David Garcia and Chris McDowell showing the current status of the Covid-19 outbreak in New Zealand.

4.15pm: National MP calls exemption request revelation a ‘desperate smear’

Chris Bishop has issued a statement responding to this afternoon’s revelation in the house that he had lobbied for the release of the two women who left managed isolation early (see 2.55pm update). “My job as Hutt South MP is to assist constituents, which is what I was doing,” he wrote. “These women should have been tested after three days. They weren’t. They should have been tested before being released. They weren’t.

This is a desperate smear from an incompetent government keen to hide its own failings at the border.”

3.40pm: ‘We’ve all been let down’ – PM

Our political editor Justin Giovannetti has just sent this update from parliament, where the prime minister spoke to media this afternoon:

Jacinda Ardern says the country’s trust in her government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has been shaken over the past two days and she shares disappointment with failures at the border.

The prime minister told reporters this afternoon she had been assured that everyone going through isolation and quarantine facilities at the border was being tested twice before departing. “To find out that was not happening of course was hugely disappointing for all of us, we’ve all been let down and our job is to fix it,” she said.

Ardern said she decided to put the military in charge of the Covid-19 border facilities after finding out about two sisters who were released early from a managed-isolation facilities without being tested. They both subsequently were found to have the coronavirus. The military is now conducting an audit of the entire system at the border, with a focus on the daily health checks conducted in isolation and quarantine.

While she has lost confidence in the border facilities for now, Ardern said she still has confidence in director general of health Ashley Bloomfield.

Ardern declined to comment on how she feels about the changing story surrounding the two sisters. Only a day earlier, the prime minister said the two had done nothing wrong. “It’s not my job to sit here and spend time talking about how I feel,” said Ardern when asked if she felt let down.

Since her defence of the sisters, Bloomfield has confirmed that one sister with mild symptoms during her managed isolation neglected to tell health officials before her release. The sister said she had none when asked specifically about the symptoms she later admitted to having.

Both sisters also “forgot” to tell health officials that soon after their early compassionate release to attend a funeral they briefly met two friends and had physical contact with them. The sisters later told health officials that they got lost on the Auckland motorway and called the friends for help with directions. They had not mentioned the encounter during an hour long interview earlier this week with officials.

2.55pm: National MP lobbied for release of Covid-19 women

National MP Chris Bishop lobbied for the release of the two women who left managed isolation early, only to later test positive for Covid-19, health minister David Clark has revealed in parliament this afternoon. Clark was asked in the house by fellow Labour MP Chris Hipkins whether he was aware Bishop had written representations for the women. “Yes I am aware of that,” Clark responded.

Watch the question and answer here, starting from 4:10.

2.30pm: Green investment fund announces first investment, two years after budget allocated

New Zealand Green Investment Finance (NZGIF) is investing $15 million into projects to cut emissions at Wellington’s port. This is the first investment decision made by NZGIF, which was allocated $100 million in the 2018 budget. The money will go towards electrifying vehicles, generating renewable energy and upgrading energy efficiency at the port.

“The change this investment will bring about at CentrePort is exactly the type of innovative approach we need in order to meet our climate targets and leave behind a safer planet for our children and grandchildren,” said climate change minister James Shaw. A media release from his office said today’s announcement is expected to be the first in a series of NZGIF investments planned for 2020.

1.30pm: Bloomfield responds to lapses

The national contact tracing centre is following up all possible contacts of the two Covid-19 cases announced on Tuesday, Bloomfield said. This has been expanded to include all hotel staff at the Novotel Ellerslie – there were 364 people at the facility, including staff and those staying there. The “vast majority” of those had since been tested, but 27 are still to be contacted.

“There was a lapse in the process of us introducing the routine day three and day 12 testing,” Bloomfield said. “I know the case of these two women will have upset people and shaken people’s confidence. I’ve certainly been upset by it and I apologise that we’ve ended up in this position. I want to reiterate, I’ve taken responsibility to make sure the system is sorted and we’re getting on and doing that.”

He said testing in managed isolation facilities was now in full swing, and yesterday around 600 tests were done across the hotels, in addition to the testing of contacts of the two women.

Regarding the woman who had mild symptoms when she was allowed to leave isolation, which she’d ascribed to a pre-existing condition, Bloomfield said he had now read the exit interview carried out with her. He said it was “very explicit around symptoms”, implying that the woman had not mentioned them, rather than there being a failure of the interview process. “She must have just not ascribed anything material to the mild symptoms she had at that time.”

On the two friends who helped the women after they got lost, Bloomfield said one has returned a negative test result, and one is pending. Asked about the follow-up interview that elicited the information about having contact with these two friends, Bloomfield said neither of the women recalled that there was brief physical contact with one of them.

He said the physical contact comprised an “arm around one, possibly both women from the side”, and said it was “information we’ve verified from all involved”. But he said the women themselves “don’t have any recollection of that element of the exchange”.

“It’s very common in these interviews where people are under stress that they think of other things that may not have been top of mind, or they may not have been considered material or important,” Bloomfield explained. “That’s why the follow-up interviews are conducted.”

Contacts of women flew to Christchurch

Bloomfield also revealed there is now a managed isolation facility in Christchurch because the Auckland facilities are too full. People who were in isolation with the two Covid cases at the Novotel Ellerslie had flown to Christchurch to be transferred to this facility, along with arrivals from other hotels.

He said part of the establishment of that facility was so people who lived in the South Island were able to access a compassionate exemption.

Masks to be required on trans-Tasman flights

Bloomfield said he has asked his team “to look at the option of requiring all passengers to wear masks” on flights from Australia, given that many of those passengers transfer from flights from further abroad, including this week’s three new cases.

“Following advice from our infection prevention control team, I felt it was important to require masks for the duration of those flights,” he said, “so we’re putting that in place.”

More cases at border expected

Asked whether this week’s three new cases could prompt a move back an alert level, Bloomfield said “no, they’re expected cases”. He said that as the global number of cases was growing and New Zealanders overseas were still wanting to come home, “we will see more”.

“Over 19,000 people have gone through managed isolation or quarantine facilities since they were established,” Bloomfield said. “We’ve identified under 40 cases and we’ve seen prior to these three cases announced this week we have been effectively able to eliminate community transmission of Covid-19 in New Zealand, in part because of the rigorous process at the border … the additional resources that the military can bring to that will just again help with ensuring that those processes are followed.”

1.00pm: One new case in New Zealand

There is one new case of Covid-19 in New Zealand today, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield has just announced.

The new case is a man in his 60s who arrived from Pakistan, via Doha and Melbourne, on flight NZ124 on the 13th of June, and is now staying at the Jet Park Hotel. “Our team is in the process of contacting all passengers on that Air New Zealand flight,” Bloomfield said.

“This is a case at the border,” Bloomfield emphasised. “We will continue to get cases at the border, there is still a pandemic raging off our shores.”

There are now 1,157 confirmed cases in New Zealand, and 1,507 confirmed and probable cases.

Yesterday 4,936 tests were processed, bringing the total to 321,187.

Today’s new case was not symptomatic when he arrived in the country and had worn a mask on his flights, Bloomfield said. He developed symptoms on the 15th of June, and was transferred to the dedicated Jet Park quarantine facility in a van, along with a travel companion.

There are currently 145 people staying at the Jet Park facility, Bloomfield said. Anyone coming through the border with symptoms is sent there and treated as if they have Covid-19. Anyone who develops symptoms during their time at one of the managed isolation facilities is also transferred there.

Another significant cluster, associated with an aged residential care facility in Hamilton, has now closed, Bloomfield announced. There are now just three clusters still open.

12.40pm: Watch Ashley Bloomfield’s media conference here

11.55am: Woodhouse drops new quarantine bombshell

National Party health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse has made another bombshell claim, this time telling The AM Show that a “reliable source” had told him about a homeless man who spent two weeks in managed isolation at a five-star Auckland hotel after pretending to be a recently-returned overseas passenger. “He hadn’t come back from overseas, he just joined the back of the queue two weeks ago, and spent a fortnight getting three square meals and a bath every day on the government,” the National MP alleged. He called on authorities to investigate the unverified claim.

11.15am: GDP sees largest decline in nearly three decades

New Zealand’s economy shrank by 1.6% in the first three months of the year, the largest decline in 29 years and the clearest sign yet of a looming recession from the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The grim data from Stats NZ only captures the start of the coronavirus’ impact on New Zealand, with the level four lockdown taking effect on March 25, four business days before the end of the first quarter. The agency warned on Thursday that the reduction in economic activity from the lockdown and collapse in tourism will only be clear in next quarter’s release.

The country’s economic growth had been slowing at the end of 2019 but the coronavirus upended the economy, with activity from New Zealand’s goods-producing industries falling by 2.7%. Construction, manufacturing and sectors related to tourism led the decline during the final months of summer. Drought and diminished Chinese demand also drove down the agriculture and logging industries.

New Zealand’s economy fared better than that of the average country in the European Union and the OECD, however Australia, Japan and the United States weathered the first three months of Covid-19 better economically.

10.55am: Bloomfield to hold media conference at 1pm

The director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, will front a media conference and 1pm. After a turbulent 24 hours with numerous stories of holes in the self-isolation system and the appointment of a senior military figure to oversee the process in place of the Ministry of Health, Bloomfield will no doubt face some sharp questions. We’ll have live coverage here.

10.15am: Flight crew reveal ‘weak link’ in border system

Some Rotorua schools are giving parents the option to keep pupils home today, after a flight attendant who worked on the flight taken by the two women who later tested positive for Covid-19 visited whānau in the city. The Herald reports Matua Koa, principal of Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Koutu, sent an email to parents last night to inform them the flight attendant had visited whānau which included pupils at the school. The flight attendant’s test has since come back negative.

Unlike returning passengers, international flight crew are not required to isolate for 14 days. On RNZ this morning, epidemiologist Sir David Skegg said these rules represented a “weak link” in the country’s border protocols.

9.15am: Epidemiologist slams ‘totally slack system’

Sir David Skegg is “extremely concerned” about reports of people leaving managed isolation early on compassionate grounds without being tested first. This “totally slack system” meant “we could have clusters emerging around the country that we don’t know about,” the leading epidemiologist told Newstalk ZB this morning. It was unacceptable that director general of health Ashley Bloomfield didn’t know the number of people released from managed isolation without a test, and that the data needed to be made public, Skegg said. “There must be records of each and every one of those people who were released into the community on compassionate grounds.”

9.00am: Quarantine failures won’t affect trans-Tasman bubble, Peters insists

Deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs Winston Peters is adamant this week’s border blunders haven’t jeopardised the progress of a trans-Tasman bubble, RNZ reports. “These two New Zealanders came out of the UK, a very Covid troubled country,” he said. “We’re dealing with Covid safe states.”

National Party leader Todd Muller disagrees, however, saying it was clear a trans-Tasman bubble would not be happening any time soon. “”It makes the opportunity to connect with Australia further away, the opportunity to connect with international students less likely, and the tens of thousands of New Zealanders whose jobs will be at risk know that to be true,” he said.

8.45am: Auckland testing times fail to meet ministry’s ‘gold standards’

Covid-19 testing and contact tracing in Auckland has fallen short in three key performance measures, RNZ reports. The three targets were implemented as a result of Ayesha Verrall’s contact tracing report, and required:

  • That 80 percent of people with Covid-19 symptoms get tested within 48 hours
  • That 80 percent of test results are received within 24 hours, and in the event of positive cases;
  • That 80 percent of close contacts are traced within 48 hours

The figures for the period 13 April to 29 May show that nationally only 71 percent were tested within 48 hours and only 79 percent received test results within 24 hours, while 83 percent of close contacts were traced within 48 hours.

Auckland Regional Public Health was the only public health unit with its results published which didn’t reach the contact tracing requirement. It traced 79 percent of close contacts within 48 hours.

The data included 144 cases and 360 close contacts nationwide.

7.45am: Bloomfield defends job after quarantine system failures emerge

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield has defended his job after more border isolation failures came to light yesterday. “I haven’t quit. I am not planning to quit. I have worked hard to keep New Zealanders safe,” he told Newstalk ZB this morning, but conceded that “we didn’t meet expectations and I’m sorry about that.”

Last night the Ministry of Health confirmed that the two women who were allowed to leave isolation in Auckland early without being tested for Covid-19, only to later test positive, had not driven straight to Wellington as initially claimed – they had got lost and come into close contact with at least two friends who gave them directions. Asked this morning if the women had lied, Bloomfield said they did not.

On Morning Report, he said an experienced medical officer had spoken to the two women for 45 minutes yesterday afternoon, as well as the friends they had come into contact with. “Both those people, even though the interaction was fleeting, went and got tested and have self isolated, so if there is any risk here it is very small,” Bloomfield said. He refuted earlier claims that there had been “hugs and kisses” between the women and their friends, saying “there was a very fleeting arm put around the women to provide comfort”.

He also revealed the vehicle they had driven to Wellington was a diesel, and “anyone with a diesel vehicle will know it’s very possible to get from Auckland to Wellington – and beyond – on a single tank of diesel.”

The public health unit had found out about the women’s contact with their friends on Tuesday, but hadn’t told the Ministry of Health until Wednesday because it hadn’t deemed it important information. Test results for the women’s friends – one of whom is reported to have attended a “hands-on” gym session since their meeting – and other close contacts from their flight and isolation facility are expected today. A Facebook post by the gym of one of the women’s friends says her test has returned negative.

7.40am: The latest on the quarantine system failures

From today’s edition of The Bulletin:

New measures will be taken around the border quarantine system after a series of idiotic failings. Our live blog had the details, including the news that the health ministry will be relieved of some of their duties and replaced with the military, after two people who subsequently tested positive for Covid-19 were allowed an exemption to leave early. The PM described it as an “unacceptable failure of the system” in an unusually angry press conference, while National leader Todd Muller called for the health minister David Clark to be sacked over his ministry’s blunder, reports Stuff. That was the afternoon – then in the evening, a whole lot of things fell apart very quickly.

It turns out ten people were allowed exemptions to leave quarantine in Christchurch on Tuesday, reports Newshub’s Michael Morrah. They were going to a funeral, even though it came nine days after such exemptions were ruled to be no longer permitted. Meanwhile, the NZ Herald’s Isaac Davidson reports claims from attendees at a wake in Auckland were joined by a woman who had arrived from the US just a day earlier, and who was yet to be tested for Covid-19. Even though the woman reportedly wore a mask and gloves, and kept her distance at all times, the US currently has a number of outbreaks across the country that are escalating out of control. And former police commissioner Mike Bush (now in charge of the Covid operation command centre) told Newstalk ZB that a youth who had attended a funeral in Hamilton from quarantine had since absconded, and (at the time of writing) was yet to be found. That young person was one of six people who absconded from that funeral, by the way, not two people as was originally reported.

There’s more. The chief ombudsman, whose office has taken on the responsibility of inspecting quarantine facilities, says his staff were potentially exposed, and had to cancel a prison inspection as a result, reports One News. Because of the way the international arrivals were managed at a hotel, his staff crossed paths with them without realising it. But hey, maybe they didn’t even need to go into a hotel to be exposed, because as One News’ Kristin Hall reports, multiple people have been leaving their managed isolation facilities without first returning a negative Covid-19 test. People were told tests were optional, or not available. And in another astonishing episode, a birthday gathering was held with kids from a number of different flights – the birthday girl blew out the candles, and then a ministry of health worker (wearing gloves for safety, of course) handed out pieces of cake.

And remember those two Covid cases at the start? It turns out they may not actually have been so strict about self-isolation on their journey down country. The NZ Herald managed to stand up why there were concerns that they “hugged and kissed” someone, as was alleged in parliament by National’s Michael Woodhouse. It appears that person had lent them their car to take down to Wellington, but had to meet up with them to give directions before they left Auckland. The person went to a gym session the next day for a “hands on” class – for obvious reasons, the operator of the gym has now temporarily shut it down. The health ministry put out a press release late last night effectively confirming the story.

Read more and subscribe to The Bulletin here

7.30am: Yesterday’s key stories

The fallout escalated from Tuesday’s revelation that New Zealand’s first new Covid-19 cases in 24 days had been allowed out of isolation before being tested. The prime minister called it an unacceptable failure of the system, and the health minister said he was “frustrated and disappointed”, but neither said anyone would lose their job.

In response to the blunder, Jacinda Ardern announced that Air Commodore Darryn (Digby) Webb, assistant chief of defence, had been appointed to oversee the managed isolation and quarantine facilities and audit the existing systems.

The Ministry of Health announced there were no new cases of Covid-19 for the day, and said 320 close contacts of Tuesday’s new cases were being traced.

National MP Michael Woodhouse claimed in parliament that the two women who tested positive for Covid-19 received help on their drive from Auckland to Wellington, and gave the helper a “kiss and cuddle”.

New Zealand’s chief ombudsman announced he would inspect the country’s Covid-19 isolation and quarantine facilities to ensure arrivals are being “treated humanely”.

The trade minister, David Parker, announced free trade talks with Britain were under way.

The Australian state of Victoria saw a spike in Covid cases, putting the prospect of a trans-Tasman bubble in doubt.

An auditor-general’s report found gaps in the Ministry of Health’s planning and provision of PPE (personal protective equipment) during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bauer Media confirmed the sale of its Australian and New Zealand arms to private equity firm Mercury Capital, but a later report suggested the NZ titles could still be up for sale.

The government announced a $380m scheme to keep apprentices in training and encourage businesses to invest in new ones.

UK researchers revealed a Covid-19 “breakthrough”: low-dose steroid treatment dexamethasone, which is cheap and widely available, is effective in treating the virus.

Read yesterday’s live updates here

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