Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a press conference (Photo: Hagen Hopkins – Pool/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a press conference (Photo: Hagen Hopkins – Pool/Getty Images)

SocietyMay 20, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, May 20: No new cases, increase to gathering size limit to be decided on Monday

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a press conference (Photo: Hagen Hopkins – Pool/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a press conference (Photo: Hagen Hopkins – 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 two – read The Spinoff’s giant explainer about what that means here. For 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.

4.00pm: National MP flouts distancing rules 

National MP Matt King has been criticised for posing for a close photograph with restaurant staff on Saturday, and has told the Herald he thinks physical distancing requirements are “rubbish”. King, the MP for Northland, posted to Facebook a photo of himself, his parents and staff from Paihia restaurant Green celebrating his parents’ wedding anniversary at the restaurant on Saturday night. In response to a commenter questioning the lack of physical distancing, King said, “I’ve over the BS coming out of this govt.”

3.20pm: How is NZ tracking? Find out in our weekly global data round-up

Check out how New Zealand compares to the world in how we’re dealing with Covid-19 in The Spinoff’s weekly data round-up. Spoiler alert: we stack up pretty darn well, with a seven-day rolling average of zero deaths per million per day.

3.10pm: Friday tipped for National leadership challenge 

In news not strictly related to Covid, the National Party leadership challenge could be mounted as soon as Friday, both RNZ and the Herald are reporting. The option of holding a caucus meeting on Friday is being “actively explored”, says RNZ, with Bridges wanting to resolve the leadership ructions as soon as possible rather than waiting until the next regular caucus meeting on Tuesday. Senior MP and former leadership contender Judith Collins has said she will not be mounting a challenge. “I’ve got no intention of being involved in it, any of that at the moment – no intention at all.” She declined to say who she would support in any leadership vote. It’s widely believed MPs Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye will be mounting the challenge but they have not yet publicly confirmed their intention.

3.00pm: More than 1,300 Air NZ staff to lose jobs – union

More than 1,300 Air NZ workers will lose their jobs as the airline starts cutting affected routes, with long- and mid-haul workers bearing the brunt, says the E tū union. Those working on long- and mid-haul routes make up 950 jobs out of the 1,600 roles affected, says the union, and 300 domestic crew will also be laid off across Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Regional airlines are also affected, with a combined loss of 97 jobs between Air Nelson and Mt Cook Airline. Today’s news comes two days after it was revealed that 300 engineering and maintenance jobs were set to go at the airline.

2.00pm: Today’s data, charted

It was another day of zero new cases in New Zealand today, with five more recoveries, bringing total active case numbers to 35. Here are the latest data visualisations.

1.40pm: Cabinet to decide on gathering size limit increase on Monday

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern says cabinet will consider whether to increase the size limit on gatherings, which is currently 10, on Monday next week, and will be “phasing in” additional activity under alert level two. 

“As we progress through level two we plan to regularly adjust our settings,” said Ardern, with Monday’s decision the first “setting check-in”. A further option down the track would be changing physical distancing requirements on public transport, she said. There is no time frame yet for a potential move to level one.

In the past hour, deputy prime minister Winston Peters’ has said New Zealand First would not support extra public holidays, as was mooted yesterday, but Ardern would not be drawn on whether this meant the idea was dead in the water.

PM defends ministers being told to decline requests to appear before ERC

In response to a question from a reporter, Ardern indicated she backed the email house leader Chris Hipkins sent to ministers and senior officials asking them to decline requests to appear in front of the Epidemic Response Committee (see 11.55am, 12.10pm updates), and indicated she thought the committee had run its course.

“I think we should acknowledge the purpose for which it was there – it was when parliament couldn’t operate, so we needed an accountability check. Things have changed.” 

Ardern said now parliament was back up and running, ministers and officials would be appearing at post-budget select committees, which would provide members of the opposition a chance to hold them accountable. “I’m simply saying there shouldn’t be duplication.”

The prime minister repeatedly refused to be drawn on commenting on the current leadership challenge to National’s Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett.

1.30pm: PM to speak on what’s required to move to level one – watch here

1.00pm: No new cases of Covid-19, more than 92,000 have downloaded contact tracing app

There are no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has announced, “and no new old cases either”, he added, referencing yesterday’s addition of four historic cases to the total.

Total case numbers remain at 1,503, with 1,153 of those confirmed and the remainder probable. Five more people have recovered, meaning 96% of all cases, and there have been no further deaths. One person is in hospital at Middlemore in Auckland. Bloomfield said 4,882 tests were processed yesterday, bringing the total to 238,725.

Talking about the newly available contact tracing app, Bloomfield said, “I would encourage Kiwis to download the app”, which would help with tracking, tracing and quickly identifying any potential spread. He confirmed the only information that would be held off the device is personal contact data, and it would not be used for enforcement – only for quickly following up contacts. More than 92,000 people have already registered for the app.

MBIE is currently contacting 800,000 businesses to give them information about how to create a unique QR code, and 1,000 businesses have now created their own posters. Dr Bloomfield said new registrations were taking place at about 10 per minute. He also said the Ministry of Health would be working with other app developers, such as Rippl in Wellington, to make sure information could be shared between the various contact tracing mechanisms. The app would complement contact tracing initiatives already in place rather than replace them. Bloomfield did not give a figure for how many people needed to download the app to make it useful, saying the more the better. He encouraged anyone having trouble with the app to let the Ministry of Health know.

He confirmed that using the app was not a replacement for providing contact details to hospitality venues. On the point of using Amazon Web Services based in Australia for data storage, Bloomfield said this was because it provided “all of government” services. “The fact that it’s in Australia is neither here nor there.”

On whether telcos were likely to waive data charges for use of the app, Bloomfield said in recent months Spark and Vodafone had zero-rated data use on a range of Ministry of Health apps, such as mental health app Mentemia, so was hopeful. He was not aware, however, if there had been any official discussions relating to the contact tracing app.

Referencing the resolution agreed by all member states of the WHA this morning, including for an evaluation of the WHO response to Covid-19, Bloomfield said, “We will be willing participants in any review.” He said the ministry was particularly interested in progress on vaccines and supply chain issues, and saw New Zealand as having an important role in working with the Pacific Islands to ensure they have ready access to any vaccine that is developed, as well as firming up supply chains for medicines and other essential equipment.

12.55pm: Daily case numbers to be announced at 1pm

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield is fronting the daily Covid-19 media briefing at 1pm. You can watch below, and we’ll be providing updates as they come.

12.40pm: Covid’s effect on trade revealed

Stats NZ has released data that shows how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected New Zealand’s trade with the world. For the week ending May 13, 2020, total exports were down 9.7% compared to the same week last year, reducing $123m from $1.27bn to $1.15bn. Total imports, however, were up 13%, increasing $151m from $1.13bn to $1.28bn on the same week last year. Both exports from and imports to China have taken a hit, with exports down 13% and imports down 4.2% compared to the same week last year.

12.20pm Bloomfield going solo at today’s briefing; everything you need to know about tracing app

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield will be taking sole charge of today’s 1pm Covid-19 update for the second day in a row. As always, we’ll have the live stream and be providing running updates.

Meanwhile, the government’s official contact tracing app, released to aid in the fight against Covid-19, is now available for download. So what does it do, what’s good about it, and what are the problems? The Spinoff’s Alex Braae has everything you need to know about the free and voluntary new app, which has the imaginative name of NZ Covid Tracing. 

12.10pm: Further details emerge about instruction to turn down ERC requests

Treasury secretary Caralee McLiesh has confirmed the existence of an email from leader of the house Chris Hipkins instructing ministers and senior officials to decline requests to appear before the Epidemic Response Committee, but says she did not receive it. McLiesh was responding to a question from committee chair Simon Bridges at today’s sitting.

11.55am: Ministers, senior officials told to decline requests to appear before ERC

Ministers and senior officials have been directed to decline requests to appear before the Epidemic Response Committee from now on, reports RNZ, which committee chair Simon Bridges says is disgraceful. Leader of the house Chris Hipkins says ministers can still be questioned as usual in parliament and at other select committees now the lockdown has lifted.

Today’s sitting of the ERC is currently taking a break before hearing from Treasury secretary Caralee McLiesh at 12. Scroll down for the live stream.

11.25am: Coffey’s comments to bar owner criticised

Labour MP Tamati Coffey has been chastised for his comments to bar owner Reg Hennessy at today’s hearing of the Epidemic Response Committee, reports the Herald. Hennessy told the committee his business, Hennessy’s Irish Bar in Rotorua, was doing it tough, to which Coffey said “we’re all doing it hard” and the “prime minister is also doing it hard”.* Act leader David Seymour said Coffey’s comments were “extraordinary”, reports the Herald. “Select committees exist to hear public concerns and scrutinise the government’s activity. Coffey used it as a bully pulpit to tell a member of the public his concerns were invalid and we should be worried about the poor prime minister.”

*It appears Coffey’s comment was in fact in response to Hennessy saying he’d been mentally tested, and was: “We all have, not least our prime minister, who’s had to make big, bold decisions based on the country’s best interests.”

11.10am: Survival of aviation tourism industry threatened, ERC hears

Louisa “Choppy” Patterson of helicopter tourism business Over the Top (who, incidentally, flew Stephen Colbert over the Southern Alps on one of the Late Show episodes he filmed in New Zealand last year) has told the Epidemic Response Committee the New Zealand domestic market would not be enough to ensure the survival of the aviation tourism sector. She outlined the requests the sector had made to the government: that a small payment to cover unavoidable fleet costs be paid from June 1 until six months after the borders with Australia open; small monthly payments be paid to cover unavoidable air operator certificate costs; and 100% government-guaranteed five-year loans. She said the current loans on offer were too short-term to be of use to the industry because international borders are likely to remain closed for some time.

10.30am: Government criticised for ERC no-shows, bar owners discuss lockdown impact

Today’s session of the Epidemic Response Committee kicked off with committee chair Simon Bridges expressing his disappointment in tourism minister Kelvin Davis’s cancellation (see 9.30am update). Bridges said he did not believe his excuse was good enough. Reg Hennessy, the owner of Hennessy’s Irish Bar in Rotorua, spoke to the committee first, detailing the impact of being unable to operate during lockdown. He was critical of the lack of support for hospitality in the budget. “We were told for weeks to wait for the budget, what a waste of time… nothing for the hospitality industry,” he said. Hennessy was unimpressed with the government’s small business loan scheme, saying more debt was the last thing businesses needed, and said more certainty around commercial leases was crucial. He said hospitality representatives had written to Andrew Little, Kris Faafoi and Stuart Nash about commercial lease concerns, but there was no response from any of them. Hennessy was also scathing of the mixed messages and rule changes hospitality businesses had faced under alert level two.

10am: Epidemic Response Committee to hear from pub owners, tourism industry – watch here

Today’s session of the Epidemic Response Committee is about to get under way, featuring Hennessy’s Irish Bar in Rotorua owner Reg Hennessy, Anthony Hall from The Still Room gastropub, Over the Top chief executive and founder Louisa Patterson, Volcanic Air Safaris chief pilot and director Tim Barrow, Totally Tourism owner Mark Quickfall, Hobbiton boss Russell Alexander and Treasury secretary Caralee McLeish. You can watch below.

9.55am: Fletcher Building to cut 1,500 jobs

The country’s biggest construction company has told the NZX it plans to get rid of 1,000 jobs in New Zealand and 500 jobs in Australia, equating to about 10% of its workforce, reports Stuff.

Fletcher Building chief executive Ross Taylor said the impact of the Covid-19 restrictions over the past two months was “significant”. “Our New Zealand businesses were closed throughout level four, except for small parts of the distribution and construction divisions which were asked to provide essential services. We shut down over 400 operating sites at the end of March.”

9.30am: Kelvin Davis bails on Epidemic Response Committee

Tourism minister Kelvin Davis will not be appearing at the Epidemic Response Committee today after cancelling his scheduled appearance yesterday afternoon, citing a double booking with a regional meeting and a Facebook live event with finance minister Grant Robertson, reports Stuff. Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan says Davis’s office wouldn’t comment about the cancellation, referring queries instead to the office of Chris Hipkins, the leader of the house.

Davis’s no-show comes in the wake of committee chair Simon Bridges berating Treasury officials for their non-appearance in front of the committee yesterday. Ministers and government officials are expected to appear before the committee to have their actions in response to the Covid-19 outbreak scrutinised. National’s tourism spokesperson Todd McClay said Davis’s cancellation showed a lack of respect for the embattled tourism industry. “This is disappointing for the tourism operators from across the country who are taking the time to appear and who have a lot sacrificed enormously to help the government’s Covid-19 response,” said McClay via a press release. “They will be looking for answers on the government’s plan for their business and they deserve them.”

Today’s meeting of the committee starts at 10am, featuring pub owners, tourism business owners and Treasury representatives, and we’ll be streaming it here.

8.45am: Trump escalating threats to WHO

American president Donald Trump has told the World Health Organisation he will permanently pull US funding if it does not “commit to major substantive improvements in the next 30 days”, reports CNN. In the latest move against the organisation following last month’s decision to temporarily halt US funding, Trump posted a letter to WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Twitter, criticising the organisation’s stance toward China and listing a series of allegations that it overlooked warning signs.

The letter included a false description of when information about the virus was published in The Lancet, prompting the prestigious medical journal to publicly dispute Trump’s claims. The president said the WHO had ignored “credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal”. The Lancet, however, said it “published no report in December, 2019, referring to a virus or outbreak in Wuhan or anywhere else in China. The first reports the journal published were on January 24, 2020.”

8.00am: Bridges ‘very confident’ he can survive leadership challenge

Simon Bridges has come out swinging, confirming for the first time that he is being challenged for the leadership of the National Party in a Morning Report interview on RNZ. He said a pair of MPs was seeking to topple he and deputy Paula Bennett, but refused to confirm it was Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye, as has been speculated.

Bridges insisted that Monday night’s dismal Newshub poll was a result of Jacinda Ardern monopolising media coverage, and said he was confident that he and Bennett would prevail in a caucus vote, expected next Tuesday morning. “I think the overwhelming majority of the caucus are behind me.”

Asked whether he would stay on as an MP if he was toppled, Bridges said, “I have no plan B. I intend with Paula to win, I am very confident of that. He dismissed the challenge as “a great distraction”. “Let’s resolve it quickly so we can get back to the things that matter.”

7.45am: Contact tracing app launched

The Ministry of Health has launched its official contact tracing app, NZ Covid Tracer, which creates “a digital diary” of the places people visit by scanning QR codes displayed at the entrances to business premises, public buildings and other organisations. Users can also register their contact information through the app to make sure the National Close Contact Service can get in touch if they need to.

The actual contact tracing process is still pretty low-tech – if you’re identified through existing contact tracing procedures as a close contact or someone who has Covid-19, the National Close Contact Service (NCCS) will ask you to open the app and read out a list of the locations you have signed into. The app will be updated in early June to allow you to electronically transmit your digital diary to the NCCS, receive a notification if you have been at the same location at the same time as someone who has Covid-19, and carry out a daily health check-in if you are in isolation or quarantine.

Andrew Chen, a research fellow at Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland, wrote about the factors the government would need to consider in choosing an app on The Spinoff last month. Last night, he tweeted his thoughts on the new app:

“Any information you decide to record with the app will be stored securely on your phone and deleted automatically after 31 days,” said director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield via a press release. “It’s your choice whether you share any of this information with contact tracers, and any information you do share will be used only for public health purposes and never for enforcement.”

Speaking on Morning Report this morning, Bloomfield said Bluetooth functionality was coming in the early June update, which he described as “the ability for your phone to detect another device close by and exchange a secret code” as is in use in countries like Australia and Singapore. The update won’t happen automatically and users will have to opt in.

Businesses and other organisations can generate QR code posters through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Business Connect service. You can download the NZ Covid Tracer from the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store. More information about the app can be found here.

7.30am: Updates from today’s edition of The Bulletin

The long-threatened coup attempt at National leader Simon Bridges seems to be finally here. Many times over his tenure there have been murmurings of MPs doing the numbers, and even a couple of instances of news reports suggesting it was coming. They’ve all been fought off, and without much of it spilling into the public domain – apart from the Jami-Lee Ross saga of course. This one appears to be different, though as always with these matters, it could just be hype. Here’s what has been reported so far:

The National caucus will be meeting next Tuesday, and between now and then, there will be an intense amount of noise about a challenge. The NZ Herald’s Claire Trevett has reported that a no-confidence vote is expected to take place, and according to the piece it isn’t necessarily clear that Bridges would win. If he lost a no-confidence vote, the leadership would be vacated. Bridges has not shown any signs that he might stand down, telling media over the course of his morning interviews yesterday that he intended to stay on. After all, the bad poll result could just be a nadir on the way to an election recovery.

It is also not yet confirmed who the main threat to Bridges might be, and no challenger has emerged openly. Politik had a piece about the various contenders, putting some approximate numbers behind each as well, though no single candidate is reported to have a majority of caucus. The top listed contender is Bay of Plenty MP and agriculture spokesperson Todd Muller – read a profile of him here. Muller has gained the vocal support of former PM Jim Bolger, who told Radio NZ that he would be the ideal MP to take over the leadership. That article also contained an “understanding” that Muller had the numbers. A reminder – nobody ever knows what the exact numbers are until after a vote has taken place, so take all this with a grain of salt.

Other candidates being discussed include Judith Collins and Mark Mitchell. Collins always gets discussed, of course, and who knows, perhaps now is the hour. Mitchell is widely considered to be less likely. The name of former Air NZ boss Christopher Luxon came up regularly on talkback yesterday, but he’s not really eligible as he still has to become an MP.

The problem for Bridges is that the story has started to spiral for him, when almost comical incidents end up becoming symbolic. So it was with Newshub obtaining an email from National MP David Bennett to a constituent – they had sent an email telling Bennett that it was time to roll Bridges, and Bennett responded with “yeah working on it”. It’s hardly an open declaration of disloyalty from Bennett, but it’s clearly a mess.

What happens next? The advice from two people with connections to the National Party is pretty clear – either do it quickly, or don’t do it at all. Kiwiblog author and party pollster David Farrer said he wouldn’t be taking a side, but didn’t want to see the issue fester. Commentator and former party volunteer Liam Hehir also wrote a warning post, noting that a party that turns in on itself is liable to see the polls get even worse. If Bridges survives the next fortnight, it seems safe to say he’ll still be in charge for the election. And no matter who is leading the party, they’ll have a very difficult job to win an election that is mere months away, which might give some potential challengers reason to pause.

Police dogs are being set on people in a state of mental health distress, according to new figures released under the Official Information Act. Radio NZ’s Tim Brown reports there have been dozens of such incidents over the last five years, in some cases resulting in the hospitalisation of people threatening to self-harm. Police have defended their conduct in such instances, saying the decision to set dogs on people is never made lightly, and that dog handlers are dealing with potentially violent situations. One point put forward in the story is that police aren’t necessarily the right people to be doing frontline mental health services.

The government’s official contact tracing app is ready to download a day early, reports Stuff. While there has been work to ensure that the data captured in the app is secure, it does appear from the privacy statement that some personal information will be stored off the device itself, contrary to how the PM has previously described it. We’ll get more information and clarity on that when it is officially launched today.

A new survey has revealed a relatively large proportion of New Zealanders wouldn’t get a Covid-19 vaccine if it was available. The Spinoff’s Josie Adams reports on the figures compiled by Stickybeak, which found that 16% would say no – a figure broadly in line with general attitudes towards vaccines. That raises troubling questions about whether it will be possible to achieve herd immunity. In other vaccine news, almost twice as many people have had their flu jab compared to this time last year.

A warning on this story – it concerns discussion of suicide. One News has reported on comments from the chief coroner about the provisional suicide figures from the lockdown period, and it would seem the rate was actually lower than usual. That contradicts claims that have been made without evidence on social media, which were covered in this Spinoff piece by Hayden Donnell. Judge Deborah Marshall said the coroner’s office has been closely monitoring suicide reports, and said that unsubstantiated claims that the lockdown had led to an increase in suicide were incorrect.

NZ First leader Winston Peters had a big day yesterday, dragging the story of who might have leaked his super overpayment details to the media back to the surface. Radio NZ reports he will be appealing the high court judgement against him, and is now claiming to know exactly who did release the information. While the continuation of this legal case will cost the taxpayer money, it’s worth reiterating – Peters had already repaid the super money at the time this all came to light.

From the Friday files: One of the interesting sets of documents is around the Temporary Accommodation Services unit of MBIE, which had a big job finding places for thousands of people to stay. A which really jumped out at me seemed highly symbolic of the rapid shift in priorities that accompanied the border closure. MBIE signed a contract worth at least $2 million with Tourism Holdings Ltd, for the first option on hiring up to 2000 campervans and motorhomes to be used for self-isolation and quarantine – elements of this had been reported, but I don’t believe the price tag has been. The ministry had very little idea of what the demand would be, and accordingly went for a high-end figure. It’s a small moment, but feels illustrative of how a crisis can lead to some creative solutions with wide benefits – not least for the heavily hit Tourism Holdings.

7.00am: Yesterday’s key stories

There were no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, meaning just two new cases have been recorded in the past eight days

The total number of confirmed cases increased by four, however these were known historical cases who have since recovered

At the World Health Assembly, WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced his intention to initiate an independent evaluation of the Covid-19 response

National accused the government of “arrogance” after two senior Treasury officials withdrew from the Epidemic Response Committee session scrutinising the budget without offering replacements

The government told big business to start paying suppliers’ invoices within 10 days in order to cash flow for small businesses

US president Donald Trump announced he has been taken the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to help prevent contracting Covid-19, in spite of mounting medical evidence suggesting it’s a bad idea. “I think it’s good”, he told reporters. 

Read more in yesterday’s live updates

Keep going!