Live updates, August 18: 13 new cases of Covid-19, one not linked to cluster

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for August 18, bringing you the latest on New Zealand news and Covid-19 as it returns to the community. Auckland is now in alert level three and the rest of NZ level two. More details here. Official information here. Contact me at stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

6.45pm: The day in sum

There were 13 new cases of Covid-19 in the community. Twelve are linked to the current cluster, and one is a MIQ (managed isolation and quarantine) worker who contracted it from a returnee at Rydges Hotel.

Health minister Chris Hipkins denied the Rydges case demonstrated a “system failure”, while National leader Judith Collins claimed Hipkins had misled the public over the lack of border testing.

Across Auckland, 97% of all staff in MIQ facilities have now been tested, according to the government.

The man who began the untrue rumour about the origins of the cluster has apologised and said he’s ready to “face the consequences”.

A security guard at an Auckland MIQ facility has been suspended after sharing a list of people staying there to a private Snapchat group.

Despite Auckland remaining in level three lockdown, some senior students will be allowed back into the classroom this week, it was announced.

The Australian state of Victoria recorded 222 new cases of Covid-19, its lowest daily increase in almost a month. There were 17 more deaths.

President Donald Trump criticised New Zealand’s “big surge” on the same day the US recorded another 42,000 cases.

The virtual Democratic National Convention kicked off with impassioned speeches by Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama, among others.

6.20pm: Numbers allowed to attend Christchurch sentencing almost halved

Significantly fewer people will be able to attend the sentencing of the Christchurch shooter on Monday than originally planned, the court registrar has announced. It had been expected that approximately 400 victims, families and support people would be able to attend but, due to the level two regulations, that number has been cut to 230. While physical distancing protocols will be followed to the “greatest extent possible”, those in whānau groups are not required to be distanced from one another.

Access to the main courtroom will be reserved for victims, their families and their support people, with a limit on the number of victims who can be in the room of 35. Access to the seven overflow courtrooms will also be restricted to victims, their families and support people. Special consideration will be given to those who have travelled from overseas and who have undergone quarantine in order to attend.

Ten seats will be reserved for media in the main courtroom, and a further 27 media seats will be available in an overflow courtroom. Approximately 12 seats will be reserved for members of the public to view the hearing from this overflow courtroom.

6.00pm: ‘Person at the top’ should be held accountable for border failures, says Peters

The deputy prime minister has called for accountability on the border failures that saw almost two-thirds of frontline staff go untested until last week, and led to the infection of a MIQ worker at Rydges Hotel in Auckland. The source of the current cluster of 69 cases is still unclear.

While Peters wouldn’t be drawn on who exactly should be in the firing line, “when you find out that something that was promised to be done has not been done, then it’s got to be like [a] business, like every other profession I know – a thing called accountability.

“In the end, the person at the top who’s been given the responsibility has to be the person that answers.”

5.15pm: Security guard shared private details of people in managed isolation

A security guard at the Sheraton Four Points managed isolation facility in Auckland has been suspended after sharing a list of people staying there with a private Snapchat group.

The photo, shared on Saturday, showed a list of the names, room numbers and arrival and departure dates of 27 returnees staying at the facility, along with the names and room numbers of five staff members.

The photo was posted early on Saturday morning and removed around midday that day as soon as agencies became aware of the breach and had identified the security guard as the source, said Megan Main, deputy chief executive for Managed Isolation and Quarantine at MBIE.

First Security, which provides security to the facility, confirmed the photo has now been deleted from the guard’s phone.

“The actions of this person were unacceptable, and we sincerely apologise to those people whose privacy was breached. We have contacted all of those affected to inform them of the incident,” said Main.

“The guard has been removed from duty at any managed isolation facility and First Security is undertaking an employment investigation. We have expressed our concerns about this incident to the employer.

“There is no information to suggest the guard is responsible for any other inappropriate disclosures of information.”

4.20pm: Virtual Democratic National Convention kicks off

Deputy editor Catherine McGregor writes: It was supposed to be held in Milwaukee, in a convention centre packed with party faithful. Instead, due to the pandemic, the Democratic National Convention that began tonight (US time) was a entirely virtual affair, with speakers beaming in from studios and homes across the nation. Hosted by actress Eva Longoria, the two hour programme – the first of four nights, ending with the official selection of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the party’s nominees – featured a mix of pre-recorded video segments and direct to camera speeches from both members of the public and elected officials, including a handful of disillusioned Republicans politicians.

One of the strongest lines came from a short speech by Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father to the coronavirus: “His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life.” In the penultimate speech of the night Bernie Sanders made a powerful call for progressives, including his own supporters, to unite behind Biden to defeat the “authoritarianism [that] has taken root in our country”. He accused Trump of being not only incapable of controlling the Covid outbreak, but unwilling to even try. “Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” Sanders said. “Trump golfs.”

The night’s keynote speaker was Michelle Obama, who delivered a searing, impassioned plea to vote for Biden “in numbers that cannot be ignored”. Referencing her famous – and often derided – call at the 2016 DNC to “go high” when Republicans “go low”, she said that “going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top.”

Watch her full speech here:

3.40pm: Victoria records lowest daily case number in a month

The Australian state of Victoria has recorded 222 new cases of Covid-19 and 17 deaths. That’s the lowest daily rise in new infections since July 20, when there were 275 new cases. There are now 7274 active cases in the state, including over 3600 with an unknown source, reports The Age.

Chief health officer Brett Sutton said he hoped to see the new case numbers fall below 200 next week.

“We shouldn’t hang everything on a single day’s result but overall the trend is good.”

3.20pm: Collins grills Ardern on border testing

In parliamentary question time, Judith Collins has focused squarely on shortcomings in testing at border and isolation facilities. Jacinda Ardern conceded that testing was “not as comprehensive as we expected, as was set out by the cabinet”. Asked who took responsibility for the testing regime, the Ministry of Health, the health minister or the prime minister, Ardern said, “as a government of course we take responsibility for our resurgence plan”. She maintained that in a global context, “we happen to be in a much better situation than most”.

Ardern added a compliment for Shane Reti’s remarks, primarily in order to draw a contrast with previous opposition statements.

3.00pm: Reti’s ‘reasonable’ speech earns kudos from across the house

Shane Reti, the National health spokesperson, delivered a tonally very different speech to many of his caucus colleagues of late, focusing on enumerating the main items in the “toolkit against Covid”.

Act leader David Seymour condemned “basic failings” in the testing regime exposed in recent days. He argued that complacency had set in after the move to level one; instead of preparation there was “self-congratulation” and “doing a little dance and engaging in a victory lap”. Seymour has previously suggested New Zealand needs to “learn to live with” Covid-19.

For his part, Green co-leader James Shaw upbraided those who were recently calling for an opening up of borders who are now demanding stricter border controls. He commended Jacinda Ardern’s leadership, as well as the speech across the house from Shane Reti, which was “reasonable, reasoned and to the point”.

There was no speech from the NZ First benches.

2.45pm: Today’s Covid-19 data, charted

There are now 90 active cases – 69 from the existing community cluster, 20 imported, and one a lone managed isolation worker whose case appears to be linked to a US returnee with whom he’s had no direct contact. Here’s the big picture via Chris McDowall.


2.25pm: Parliament is back

Parliament, which adjourned a couple of weeks ago, is back. The public gallery is closed under level two, and the parliamentary website has come down with something nasty, so you can’t watch it there. Political tragics can still get their fix, however, by watching on digital or satellite TV or by listening to RNZ Parliament here.

They’re kicking off with some ministerial statements. Chris Hipkins, the health minister, led proceedings, reiterating many of the points he’s made in briefings and in media interviews over recent days. Paul Goldsmith, National’s finance spokesperson, followed. He pinned the blame on the outbreak on the government, saying border testing had been “dealt with in a loose fashion despite all the talk”. The management of police checkpoints, he said, was “a complete shambles”.

More to follow.

2.20pm: Rydges case reinforces need for testing of border staff, spread without direct contact ‘concerning’

“The discovery of this second transmission into the community illustrates the challenge in keeping the virus at the border and reinforces the need for regular testing of workers at the border and MIQ facilities, whether they have symptoms or not,” says Shaun Hendy, director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, via the Science Media Centre. “It also shows the value of routine and rapid sequencing of all cases in New Zealand.

“This new case was found in someone with a direct connection to the border, which suggests that it has likely been caught early. If so, then the number of secondary cases is likely to be low,” Hendy says. “Nonetheless, it is concerning that the worker does not seem to have had direct contact with the traveller while at the facility. It will be important to ensure that other workers at the facility have all been tested, because they may have been exposed via the same route and there may have been an intermediary case.”

1.35pm: 97% of Auckland MIQ staff now tested

The minister in charge of managed isolation Megan Woods has defended the strong protocols in place at MIQ facilities, despite a Rydges Hotel worker testing positive for Covid-19. “The facility is one which has had no serious incidents reported,” Woods said.

“This case highlights how tricky and insidious this virus can be.”

Air commodore Digby Webb said protocol was followed. The Rydges Hotel went into lockdown on Sunday, after the positive case was identified, he said.

Genome testing has revealed the person has the same sequence of Covid-19 as a returnee from the United States who stayed at the Rydges Hotel from July 28 to 31. Woods said they have ruled out this returnee directly passing on the virus to the hotel worker. The room was not entered between July 31 and August 14, which is the date it was cleaned.

Woods said swipe card access data showed the US returnee stayed in her room for most of the three days she was there, leaving it only two or three times over the whole period. CCTV footage of the times she did leave her room is being reviewed.

Woods confirmed that “100% of all staff at the Rydges have now been tested.” Across Auckland, 97% of all staff in isolation and quarantine facilities have now been tested, said Woods.

When questioned on why we are only hearing about the Rydges case in detail today, despite the hotel going into lockdown over the weekend, Woods said it was reported as part of the usual list of cases yesterday. More information, she said, has now come to light.

The Spinoff’s Justin Giovannetti asked Woods why the Rydges employee was able to come to work at the managed isolation facility when he had symptoms. Woods said the man had undergone the usual health checks and “he passed those health checks in terms of the temperature bit. He did have a cough but that was put down to a pre-existing medical condition.”

She defended the process, but said there was always room for improvement in the way cases are detected in managed isolation facilities.

1.00pm: 13 new cases of Covid-19; 12 linked to cluster

Updated

There are 13 new cases of Covid-19 in the community, the director general of health Ashley Bloomfield has confirmed. 12 of the new cases have immediate links to the existing community cluster, while another remains under investigation. Bloomfield said, however, that they expect a connection to be identified.

98 people related to the cluster have been moved into the quarantine facility at Jet Park hotel; 44 are Covid positive, the remainder are household contacts.

There are 90 active cases in New Zealand, Bloomfield said, with 69 of those from the community cluster. One is the Auckland hotel worker who has not been able to be linked to the cluster, despite genome testing. The remaining 20 cases are imported cases.

Six people are currently in hospital, two at Auckland City and four at Middlemore. None are requiring intensive care.

Bloomfield said there were 1,880 close contacts of the Auckland cluster, 1,691 of whom have been contacted and are self-isolating.

There are two more locations of interest today, Bloomfield said. They are the Pak n Save supermarket on Apirana Avenue in Glen Innes, which was visited by a confirmed case on several occasions between 10.09am on July 31 and August 8 at 10.10am, and Mount Roskill Primary School on Frost Road, which a confirmed case visited over a 24-hour period between 1.40pm on August 10 and 1.40pm on August 11.

When asked whether there would be an inquiry into the government’s handling of Covid-19, Hipkins said there would be a time for that – but the priority right now is the health response.

Hipkins denies system failure at MIQ facilities 

The health minister rejected claims of a system failure, after a maintenance worker at the Rydges Hotel tested positive for Covid-19, with no links to the existing cluster. Genome testing of this patient has revealed a different strain of the virus to that of the cluster.

Ashley Bloomfield said it’s currently a mystery how this worker contracted the virus, but said an investigation is ongoing. He confirmed the worker had no contact with guests and wore full PPE.

The man was tested on August 13 as part of mass testing of the workers at Rydges, Bloomfield said. The man had reported mild symptoms two days prior but had attributed them to a pre-existing condition. They had subsided so he had returned to work.

Bloomfield said two possibilities of how the man was infected were being explored: person-to-person contact via an intermediary between the returnee from the US and the worker; and environmental contamination. “We know this virus can survive on surfaces.”

Hipkins said initial signs suggested “this is just one person” and is a contained case. “Immediate close contacts – household and work contacts – have been tested and have come back negative, which is very encouraging,” he said.

On testing

Yesterday 18,421 tests were processed, meaning more than 100,000 have been processed over the last five days, health minister Chris Hipkins said.

On surface testing of the Americold facility in Mt Wellington that was being undertaken to determine whether the virus could have been imported via freight and survived in the chilled environment, Bloomfield said a final report was imminent, but “it seems clear now that the possibility is being ruled out”.

More than 3,485 workers at ports around New Zealand have been tested, said Hipkins. More than 5,000 staff working for around 800 different organisations have accessed Auckland’s port since July 21 and as of last night, 2,194 have been tested.

As of 6pm last night, 2,407 of 4,474 Auckland airport workers had been tested and a dedicated testing team worked through the night last night to capture night-shift workers.

Among workers in managed isolation and quarantine facilities, 2,806 tests have now been completed, comprising 97% of the Auckland workforce. In MIQ facilities in the rest of the country, 1,599 staff have been tested.

12.45pm: Bloomfield to update on latest Covid-19 cases

Ashley Bloomfield will be revealing the latest Covid-19 information at today’s 1pm briefing. He’ll be joined by ministers Chris Hipkins and Megan Woods, and air commodore Digby Webb.

It comes after genome testing revealed an Auckland hotel worker who tested positive for Covid-19 has no known links to the existing community cluster (more info below).

Watch live:

12.25pm: Testing reveals Auckland Covid case has no links to cluster

Updated

Genome testing has shown one of Auckland’s positive Covid cases is not linked to the community cluster.

There were only two current active cases not confirmed to be part of the cluster, but the Ministry of Health believed genome testing would show both were linked.

Results received today, however, show that one person, a maintenance worker at the Rydges Hotel managed isolation facility, is not part of the cluster. The person tested positive on Sunday, after first experiencing symptoms last Monday, August 11. He was transferred to the Jet Park Hotel quarantine facility yesterday.

Genome testing instead showed the person has the same sequence as a returnee from the United States who stayed at the Rydges Hotel from July 28 to 31, says the ministry.

At this stage, the ministry said, there is no obvious person-to-person connection between the worker and the returnee from the USA but investigations are ongoing.

“Initial reviews of CCTV footage and swipe card movements so far show no interaction between the two people including no entry to physical locations occupied by the returnee from the USA,” the ministry said in a statement.

The room the USA returnee was in has been unoccupied since the case was transferred to the Jet Park quarantine facility and is still empty. The room underwent hospital-grade cleaning with hydrogen peroxide vapour sanitation using a BioQuell machine, the ministry said.

No other cases linked to this person have been identified to date. Further genome sequencing and matching is being completed today and fuller analysis is expected later.

Genome testing of another Covid-positive person has revealed they do have a connection to the existing Auckland cluster, despite no prior links being established.

The latest Covid-19 information will be provided by the director general of health at today’s 1pm briefing.

What to read on The Spinoff right now

There are a couple of excellent piece on The Spinoff this morning that I’d like to draw your attention to:

  • Firstly, David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s investigation into “Patient Zero” of the deadly rumour about how Covid-19 returned to the community. Reeve tracked down the man who started the rumour, and published the conversation with him on David Farrier’s Webworm Substack site. It’s their hope that in talking with Patient Zero of a conspiracy theory, we can understand a little more how they spread, and the victims they leave in their wake. You can read the full conversation here.
  • Secondly, with the election’s delay until October 17, the number of young people able to vote has increased. 17-year-old Gina Dao-McLay is one of those who will be able to head to the polls in nine weeks time. She’s excited – but says thousands more people like her deserve the same chance to have their voices heard. Check out her full piece here.

10.30am: Health minister has misled public – Judith Collins

Judith Collins wouldn’t go as far as to call for Chris Hipkins’ resignation, but has this morning told media he has to face questions from the prime minister over testing at the border. It’s been revealed a number of frontline border workers failed to receive tests for Covid-19, despite assurances by the government there would be regular checks. Collins claimed that the health minister has misled the public, although could not provide proof of this.

“The prime minister has categorised this as miscommunication. I would say this is a complete failure,” Collins said.

Collins claimed she had heard from border workers who weren’t offered tests, and even suggested some who asked for tests were refused them.

When questioned on comments made this morning by the US president Donald Trump, in which he labelled our new Covid-19 cases a “big surge”, Collins said she hadn’t seen them: “I’m not here to talk about Donald Trump.”

National’s border policy is set to be released sometime this week.

New episode: Gone by Lunchtime talks election delay

With the return of Covid-19 comes the return of podcasts recorded over Zoom. In this episode of our politics podcast Gone by Lunchtime, Toby, Annabelle and Ben forget how to record a remote podcas.

Topics include: the election date (it’s changed), community transmission (it’s back), Gerry Brownlee, conspiracy theories, Judith Collins, why National should run a Fat Freddy’s Drop inspired campaign, and the concept of “political edging”. Ben’s a bit mean about Ashley Bloomfield, there’s a bit of Zorb chat, and a nostalgic shout out to Merv and the Bad Boys of Brexit too. Miss those guys.

Read more and listen here

Download now, subscribe through Apple Podcasts, or visit Gone By Lunchtime on Acast or Spotify

8.40am: ‘We don’t want that’ – Trump on our ‘big’ Covid surge

Well, Obama never tweeted about New Zealand – but surely Trump name-dropping us in a campaign speech is the same?

The president was addressing a crowd in Minnesota when he brought up our “big” surge of Covid cases. New Zealand has 1,280 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 58 currently in the community. The US has almost 5.5 million cases. 170,000 people have died.

“They were holding up names of countries and now they’re saying ‘whoops’,” the president said.

“In fact, even New Zealand… they beat it, they beat, it was like front page [news], they beat it because they wanted to show me something.

“The problem is [there is a] big surge in New Zealand… we don’t want that,” he said.

Watch below:

8.15am: Collins surprised by Brownlee’s Covid conspiracy questions

National’s Gerry Brownlee has been surprisingly quiet since Auckland returned to level three last week. Prior to the shift, the deputy leader had been quick to allege possible collusion between the director general of health and the prime minister regarding Covid-19 community transmission. As The Spinoff’s managing editor Duncan Greive wrote at the time: Gerry Brownlee just thinks it’s interesting.

Last week, Brownlee said he found it interesting that Covid-19 had returned to the community so soon after the issuance of mask guidance, Ardern’s visit to a mask factory and Bloomfield’s Covid-19 test.

Today, National’s leader Judith Collins further distanced herself from those comments. She told TVNZ “it was a bit of a surprise” to hear the comments Brownlee made and said he has since apologised.

“There has been a lot of theories going around on social media… but until we actually know, it’s best not to indulge in them,” Collins said.

“Gerry was just reflecting that anxiety that we were hearing.”

7.50am: Testing of border workers now ‘absolutely mandated’ – PM

The prime minister said she thought all border workers were being tested, whether or not they had symptoms, before Auckland’s latest Covid-19 outbreak. It’s since been confirmed many were slipping through the cracks.

Responding to the lack of testing, Ardern told TVNZ’s Breakfast it now looked like “the vast majority, if not all,” have been tested.

“It isn’t an order now: it’s absolutely mandated,” she said. Any claim that the government had been complacent was rejected, Ardern said.

Ardern told RNZ she had heard of some reluctance around asymptomatic testing, which was unacceptable. “That is something that we need to make sure in the future is not a barrier,” she said.

However, the prime minister said that even a weekly testing regime is not “foolproof”. She said it’s also important to have wide use of PPE and other infection control preventions in place.

Ashley Bloomfield refused to label the lack of testing at the border a “failure” when pushed on the matter during yesterday’s 1pm briefing. Instead, he described it as a miscommunication.

Meanwhile, the prime minister said she tried to put her personal view aside when deciding whether or not to delay the election. “October 17 is where I landed,” she told TVNZ’s Breakfast. The decision to shift the election was widely backed by parties with sitting MPs. Only the Greens were on the record as wanting polling day to remain on September 19.

7.40am: Some school students to be allowed back this week

Despite Auckland remaining in an alert level three lockdown, some senior students will be allowed back into the classroom this week.

Auckland Grammar Headmaster Tim O’Connor told RNZ he’s been calling for additional flexibility especially for students so close to crucial assessments. He said the extra time away from the classroom would be expensive, especially for students sitting Cambridge examinations.

On hearing the news it will be permitted, O’Connor told RNZ he was ecstatic. “It gives them the opportunity to get prompt responses from teachers. Anything we can give them they’ll be grateful for,” he said.

It would mean a lot of organisation to ensure physical distancing of one metre inside and two metres outside, classes of 20 or fewer and teachers only being associated with one group of students although the bubble of students could have more than one teacher.

“It might mean students aren’t with us for the entire day… any form of face-to-face contact is great for our young people.”

7.35am: Top stories from The Bulletin

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, the election will be delayed by four weeks. Here’s a report on that from Justin Giovannetti, who writes that it follows consultation from a wide range of other political parties, many of whom were calling for a delay. “Moving an election date, especially this late in the electoral cycle is a significant decision. In the end what matters most is what is in the best interests of voters and our democracy,” said Ardern. Moreover, she made it clear that this delay would be a one off – if there is another Covid outbreak, we’ll just have to deal with it. We’ve updated all of our key dates for the campaign accordingly.

In response, the Electoral Commission has swung into action. The NZ Herald reports they’ll now have to update a lot of their material and communications, but are confident about getting it done. Incidentally, the Electoral Commission had always intended to run the election as if the country were at alert level two, so logistically not a lot necessarily changes for them. It does also bring a new crop of voters into the frame – Stuff reports thousands of teenagers will turn 18 between the old date and the new date, and will thus become eligible.

In terms of the political reaction, NZ First welcomed the decision, as it had been one of the options the party had pushed for. ACT also said the same, with David Seymour saying “ACT believes a free and fair contest requires that we have four weeks at Level 1 in the run up to Election Day. If the Government manages to contain the Auckland outbreak, and we don’t have further lockdowns, then today’s decision will allow that to happen” – the statement also included some jabs about the government’s response. The Greens by contrast hit out at other parties, saying “we have been incredibly disappointed to see the National and other small parties continue to use the weekend to bang on about what would suit them best politically when it comes to the Election Day date.”

Read more and subscribe to The Bulletin here

7.30am: Yesterday’s key stories

There are nine new cases of Covid-19 in the community. The total number of active cases is now 78, of which 58 are connected to the community cluster.

The 2020 election has been postponed and will now be held on October 17 – four weeks later than its original September 19 date.

Businesses will receive more support from the government with Finance Minister Grant Robertson announcing details of the wage subsidy extension.

Watercare’s CEO has resigned after coming under fire for his $775,000 salary as Auckland faces the most severe drought in its history.

Read all the key stories in yesterday’s live updates




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