Jacinda Ardern and Health Ashley Bloomfield at a Beehive briefing in April 2020. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern and Health Ashley Bloomfield at a Beehive briefing in April 2020. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

SocietyApril 19, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, April 19: Nine new cases in NZ, level four exit criteria outlined

Jacinda Ardern and Health Ashley Bloomfield at a Beehive briefing in April 2020. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern and Health Ashley Bloomfield at a Beehive briefing in April 2020. (Photo by 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.

7.00pm: The day in sum

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield announced nine new cases of Covid-19, and one more confirmed death.

Health officials are working “furiously” to implement the recommendations of an audit of New Zealand’s contact tracing capabilities, Bloomfield said. The audit’s author, infectious diseases physician Ayesha Verrall, is understood to be damning of the Ministry of Health’s ability to rapidly trace the contacts of potential Covid-19 cases. The audit will be made public after tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern laid out the criteria cabinet will use tomorrow when it decides whether to move to alert level three. Ardern will announce the decision at 4pm.

Concerns about the consequences of partial school reopening continued to be voiced by teachers, principals and health experts.

Social development minister Carmel Sepuloni confirmed that more than 7,000 New Zealanders signed up for benefits in the last week, and 10,700 the week before.

The global death toll from Covid-19 is at 158,000 and the total number of cases is roughly 2.3 million. Overnight, the UK’s death toll passed 15,000.

6.45pm: On The Spinoff today

Sam Brooks spent much of the day watching the marathon One World: Together at Home concert and picked out all the highs, the lows and the wtf moments.

Chris McDowall delivered the latest in his daily collection of maps, charts and data visualisations of the Covid-19 outbreak in New Zealand.

A big unknown of Covid-19 in NZ? The number of cases we have not detected, wrote biostatistics professor Thomas Lumley.

We transcribed Jacinda Ardern’s explanation of how cabinet will decide tomorrow whether to move to level three.

Covid-19 has highlighted the shortcomings of our treatment of those living with dementia, wrote Alzheimers NZ chief executive Catherine Hall.

Teachers are voicing concerns around school reopenings under alert level three, reported Alice Webb-Liddall.

What will alert level three mean for couriers – and those of us waiting for deliveries? Michael Andrew investigated.

Poet Glen Colquhoun wrote to long-dead economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith, in our latest lockdown letter.

Louise Thornley shared a beginner’s guide to public health.

6.25pm: Principal warns of class divide on school changes

Kaye Brunton, principal of decile three Ngāti Toa School in Porirua, says rules that ease restrictions on employment while also allowing some children to return to school will put the health of her community at risk.

“I have no doubt that many of our parents’ financial situations will mean they won’t have any choice but to send their kids to us so they can return to work. I’m sure that won’t be the case for many high-decile schools. In these schools, more parents will have jobs that can be done from home, or can afford for one parent to stay home to care for and teach their children,” she wrote.

“On Friday it was reported that Māori are more than twice as likely to die from coronavirus than other New Zealanders. Seventy-nine percent of the children on our roll are Māori.” Read the column in full here.

4.15pm: Paediatrician on risks to children at school

A paediatrician has said that parents have good reason to be cautious about the prospect of schools reopening next week, given that schools and early childhood centres can be petri dishes for viral infections. “The plan would be to try and keep the bubbles small at school, but, as you know, preschoolers will just mix,” Dr Nick Baker, a former president of the Paediatric Society, told the NZ Herald. “So I think that is the reason why there are a lot of concerns from the education sector and early childhood sector about how realistic this is going to be.” There have been 34 cases of Covid-19 among children under nine so far, out of a total of 1,431. While that number is low, Baker said the risk is higher for children with respiratory conditions or compromised immune systems. “But there also seems to be the random bad case – absolutely no reason why this person does terribly with this germ.”

3.35pm: Stats NZ data shows massive drop in Easter retail activity

Recently released data shows a drastic, albeit unsurprising, drop in in-person retail activity during Easter 2020 compared to the same holiday period last year. Data Ventures, the data brokerage and commercial arm of Stats NZ, uses ‘pings’ to cellphone towers to show the number of people in a location at a given time. Its report on Easter 2020 activity looked at six areas of NZ life – retail, transit, residential, tourism, workplace and recreational – and while all showed major changes from last year to this, the retail graph is the most striking. You can see all the data graphed here.

2.00pm: Those four criteria in full

We’ve transcribed in full the criteria for exiting alert level four, as outlined by Ardern in the last hour. Read it here.

1.45pm: How those numbers look

This just in from The Spinoff’s curve-charter-in-chief Chris McDowall.

1.35pm: Bloomfield on contact tracing

Asked about concerns around shortcomings in New Zealand’s contact tracing, Bloomfield said, “the system we came into the Covid-19 pandemic with was one based around our public health units, very much local capability and capacity, very for smaller outbreaks in those areas”. A national network continued to be developed, but it wasn’t “particularly easy to get information out of it”.

The Ministry of Health has not yet released as promised Otago University epidemiologist Ayesha Verrall’s audit of contact tracing capabilities. Bloomfield and Ardern said it would be made public after tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting.

He said health officials are working “furiously” to implement its recommendations. A national contact tracing centre staffed by 200 people has been set up, and the ambition was being able to trace 80% of all Covid-19 case contacts within three days. “I am of the view that we are on a pathway to having a … gold standard contact tracing end-to-end process, because that will be essential for us to be able to safely be within a level three and lower alert level.”

Bloomfield said the Ministry of Health would likely meet that standard “within the next week”. Ardern warned against seeing that timeframe as an indication that Cabinet would opt to extend alert level four.

Asked about progress on technology for contact tracing, Ardern said was being pursued, but not a prerequisite for moving alert level. “We see it as an addition of course, but it will only ever supplement what needs to be excellent contact tracing on the ground.”

For more on contact tracing and why it’s so important, see Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris’s illustrated explanation here.

Bloomfield was also asked about concerns among Māori health practitioners around ethnicity data, including the numbers of recovered cases. He said he didn’t have that information, but that concerns around the volume of testing of ethnic groups including Māori and Pasifika had been addressed.

1.20pm: Ardern on the decision around alert level

The prime minister has announced that Cabinet will meet earlier than usual tomorrow, from 10.30am, to determine if and when New Zealand will move out of alert level four. The decision will be announced at 4pm. She stressed that “this is going to be a long term project for us all” and a move out of the strict lockdown will “not a return to pre-Covid-19 life for any of us”.

Ardern identified four key criteria for that decision:

1. Sufficient data to have “reasonable certainty” that “undetected community transmission is unlikely”.

2. Confidence that rapid and rigorous contact tracing is in place with “search capacity available in the case of an outbreak”.

3. Necessary measures at the border and for quarantine and self-isolation

4. Capacity in the health system, including availability of protective equipment.

The effects on the economy and “society more broadly” would also figure in the decision, she said.

Ardern said that the information on which the decision is based would be shared.

She finished with a tribute to small business owners and operators. “Nobody underestimates how hard the situation is for all of you. But I want to thank you for pouring so much effort into keeping your staff employed and working so hard to stay afloat for the time when you can get up and running.”

Ardern later noted that a package on assistance for media could be expected “in the coming days”.

1.08pm: Nine new cases of Covid-19 in NZ

There are nine new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health, has announced. That comprises four confirmed and five probable cases. All are linked to confirmed cases. It is the second time since the lockdown that the number has been a single digit.

This means the 25 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, 17, 20, 15, 8, 13, and today, nine.

The total number of cases for the country now stands at 1,431. There are 912 reported cases that are recovered, an increase of 45 from yesterday.

Bloomfield confirmed that the death in Invercargill last week has now been “confirmed as Covid-19 related”.

There are 18 people in hospital, including three people in ICU. Two people are in a critical condition.

There remain 16 significant clusters of Covid-19 around the country. A total of 4146 tests were carried out yesterday, making the rolling seven-day average 3151 and the overall total 83,224.

The targeted testing announced earlier in the week, to determine any undetected community transmission, has so far taken place in Queenstown, Waikato, Canterbury and Auckland, said Bloomfield. Yesterday a total of 442 samples were tested from Auckland, and with 75% tests so far processed, none has returned as positive.

Bloomfield said 131 healthcare workers had contracted Covid-19. Of those, 50% were infected in their workplaces. Most of the cases were passed on by fellow healthcare workers, some of whom had contracted the virus outside, Bloomfield said. Very few of the workers contracted Covid-19 from the people they were caring for, whether patients or residents at aged care facilities, he said. Forty-three of the healthcare workers have now recovered.

12.55pm: Watch the media briefing

Watch Ashley Bloomfield and Jacinda Ardern give today’s update here.

11.55am: Covid-19 highlighting education inequities – academic

The education curriculum that’s been put in place during the Covid-19 crisis is highlighting the disadvantages Māori students face compared to Pākehā, an academic has told Marae.

Speaking to Miriama Kamo this morning, Professor Linda Tuhiwai-Smith said inequities have been exposed with, for example, online learning. Māori students often have less access to the resources needed to engage in remote classes, she said. “One of the things we would anticipate is some of these inequities will be exposed in quite stark ways, with for example, children who live in communities where there’s no internet connectivity, children who don’t have wifi in their homes and even when they have a device in their home it has to be shared across a working parent and maybe three or four children.”

Only about half of schools are set up for distance learning using the internet, according to a survey carried out by the Ministry of Education. Government efforts to enable distance learning for the remainder of students include funding two television channels to broadcast educational content (including one featuring Suzy Cato), and delivering online resources for homeschooling.

Tuhiwai-Smith said the opportunity to do something different with remote education was there, but New Zealand may have missed the boat with the current ‘one size fits all’ approach. Māori have a valuable perspective to offer on how to confront pandemics, and that could have been a useful addition to the curriculum, she said. “We could be teaching Māori history and New Zealand history through the eyes of the pandemic, because we experienced pandemics, we’ve experienced epidemics, we have a long story of that. We have philosophies in our indigenous ways that can help people all over the world to imagine something different after the pandemic.”

11.35am: Top team returning to 1pm briefing

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern and director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield are back to deliver today’s 1pm update on the response to Covid-19. The news will be a welcome relief to reporters who struggled to fill the gap left when yesterday’s briefing was delivered by email.

10.47am: Thousands more people receiving benefits

More than 7,000 New Zealanders signed up for benefits in the last week, and 10,700 the week before, social development minister Carmel Sepuloni has confirmed. Speaking to Mihingarangi Forbes on The Hui this morning, Sepuloni said the MSD is working hard to help new beneficiaries gain employment, but expects numbers to keep rising because the unemployed aren’t able to find work at the moment.

“We can’t expect to see the benefit cancellations because people aren’t exiting into work at the same extent that we were previously,” she said. “We are already working on deployment efforts with our rapid response teams across the country, talking with our industry partners about what opportunities there may be for people to step into employment.”

The increase in those applying for support comes as Treasury predicts a rise in unemployment to between 13% and 25%, depending on how long New Zealand sticks with strict lockdown restrictions.

Sepuloni said she was confident the MSD was working “as hard as they can” to help those in need. But she admitted beneficiary advocate groups had voiced concern that the Covid-19 crisis had left vulnerable families without the cheaper essentials they’d normally rely on.

“Food and security is something that is felt, particularly at the beginning of the lockdown when people were panic buying and often taking the cheaper products off the shelves that many beneficiaries and superannuitants would have usually gone and got for themselves.”

Sepuloni wouldn’t commit to easing rules requiring those on job seeker benefits to accept any full-time job offer or risk having their benefit reduced. However, she said the government wouldn’t be “unfair and irrational” toward people receiving benefits.

Auckland Action Against Poverty spokesman and Green Party candidate Ricardo Menéndez has criticised her for not relaxing the rule. “Research has shown that cutting people’s benefit for not taking up a job offer or attending work seminars does not help people find meaningful employment. Your right to a life with dignity shouldn’t be dependent on your employment status,” he said on Twitter.

Asked if there is any chance the level of support for beneficiaries will adjust due to added costs of living in lockdown (internet, power, children at home), Sepuloni says the ministry is looking at income adequacy in the upcoming budget. There had already been some measures put in place, including an increase in the amount people could access through food grants, she said.

“That was an immediate action we put in place to recognise the additional pressure that families would be under… Getting access to food has been a priority for our government, for social services and also Whanau Ora and Civil Defence.”

9.41am: Donald Trump defends US response to Covid-19

US President Donald Trump is delivering his daily briefing on the Covid-19 pandemic. He has launched a rambling defence of his administration’s efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19, boasted about the performance of the Dow Jones, complained about “rude” political opponents, and launched into an extended monologue where he called New York Times political reporter Maggie Haberman “terrible” and “fake”. Press covering the briefing, including Haberman, have struggled to glean any new information so far.

Data from John Hopkins University shows the US has the most cases of Covid-19, and the most deaths linked to the virus, in the world. Its 700,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 dwarfs that of the Spain, which has about 190,000 cases of the disease.

9.08am: An FYI on Q&A

For those missing TVNZ’s Q&A this morning, it has shifted timeslot to 9.25pm on Monday evenings. Tomorrow evening’s episode will feature analysis of the government’s decision on whether to move the country out of level four lockdown.

8.45am: Global death toll hits 158,000, 2.3 million cases

The global death toll from Covid-19 is at 158,000 and the total number of cases is roughly 2.3 million, according to recent figures from John Hopkins University. Several countries, including Russia and Singapore, have reported spikes in new cases of the virus. Despite that, the US remains the epicentre of the disease, with about 700,000 confirmed cases and more than 31,000 deaths. Its numbers dwarf that of  Spain, which has the second-most cases of Covid-19 at about 190,000.

8.10am: Scientists sound alarm over level three readiness

As noted last night, scientists have been sounding the alarm over New Zealand’s readiness to shift to a level three Covid-19 alert, the New Zealand Herald has reported. Its report says an audit carried out by the University of Otago infectious diseases physician Ayesha Verrall is understood to be “damning” of the Ministry of Health’s ability to rapidly trace the contacts of potential Covid-19 cases. Verrall’s report was handed in last Saturday, but is yet to be released.

The Herald says the delay is likely sign the ministry is scrambling to address Verrall’s concerns before tomorrow, when Cabinet will decide whether the country can move down to alert level 3. Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield told media that officials were working “furiously” to respond to Verrall’s recommendations on Wednesday.

Verrall has repeatedly called on the Ministry of Health to scale up its Covid-19 testing capabilities and contact tracing systems. She authored this article on March 6 and was one of six Otago University academics who also called for expanded surveillance testing in this blog from April 6. She also had input into this explainer on why contact tracing is important by Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris.

7.50am: UK death toll passes 15,000

More than 15,000 people have died from Covid-19 in UK hospitals, the British government has announced. The country’s Covid-19 death toll rose by 888 yesterday, taking the total number of deaths linked to the virus to 15,464. However, because it’s only counting deaths that take place in hospitals, the real toll is likely far higher. 

Meanwhile, there are signs the country’s health service, the NHS, is struggling. Housing, communities, and local government secretary Robert Jenrick this morning said authorities have “got to do more” to get PPE to health workers so they can do their jobs safely. He announced that a large consignment of PPE was due to arrive in the UK from Turkey tomorrow.

The NHS has also dealt with years of underfunding. It will soon receive a significant boost thanks to the efforts of a 99-year-old fundraiser. Captain Tom Moore raised £23m for the health service by doing a charity walk around his garden. He will be guest of honour at the opening of the NHS Nightingale in Harrogate. Despite Moore’s heroic efforts, many British people have expressed concern at the health system having to turn to charity.

7.37am: Yesterday’s key NZ stories

There are 13 news cases of Covid-19, with no related deaths, and a further 51 recovered cases.

The government announced it would invest $200m into PPE.

All the targeted testing conducted in Queenstown, Waikato and Canterbury, to determine any undetected community transmission, has so far returned negative results.

The Ministry of Health is said to be delaying a report detailing the shortcomings of its contact-tracing and surveillance capabilities.

The Ministry of Education, after initially announcing that schools would reopen but attendance would be voluntary under level three, today clarified schools will be able to enrol students only if no one is available to care for them at home.

A Whanganui man has been sentenced to one month in prison for repeatedly breaching the level four lockdown restrictions.

Read yesterday’s updates here.

Keep going!