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Photo of a middle-aged politician, eyes closed, chin raised, during a press conference bristling with microphones
Bridges speaks to media after a caucus meeting at Parliament on October 16, 2018 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

SocietyMay 21, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, May 21: No new cases; Disastrous new poll for Bridges

Photo of a middle-aged politician, eyes closed, chin raised, during a press conference bristling with microphones
Bridges speaks to media after a caucus meeting at Parliament on October 16, 2018 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/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.

6.50pm: The day in sum

There were no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, for the fourth day in a row, meaning there have now been just two new cases in the past 10 days

National Party MPs descended on Wellington to attend Friday’s urgent caucus meeting to decide on the party membership, with Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller looking to topple the incumbent Simon Bridges

Bridges’ position looked increasingly shaky after a disastrous One News-Colmar Brunton poll showed him as the preferred choice of only 5% of voters. Jacinda Ardern is at 63%.

Bars around New Zealand were allowed to reopen for this first time since the country entered lockdown in March, albeit with strict new health measures in place

The idea of a four-day working week was kicked around after the prime minister floated it as a potential way to stimulate domestic tourism

New Zealand’s new contact tracing app, NZ Covid Tracer, was slammed by National Party health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse as “pointless” as some experts criticised its “significant shortcomings”

There was a new twist in the ongoing media saga involving NZME’s attempts to buy Stuff, with the introduction of a third interested party revealed

6.30pm: Gone By Lunchtime on Bridges’ battle

With the leadership vote only a hours away, political podcasters Ben Thomas, Annabelle Lee-Mather and Toby Manhire gathered to discuss Simon Bridges’ fight to hang on to the top job in National.

“The Gone By Lunchtime team offers a bold and, frankly, mind-blowing verdict on what will go down,” it says here. “Plus: the budget, and other bits and pieces, such as the Covid-19 crisis.”

Listen on the Gone By Lunchtime podcast page, or subscribe via Apple Podcasts or Spotify or here on Stitcher (RSS feed).

6.10pm: Disastrous new poll for Bridges ahead of leadership challenge

Tonight’s One News-Colmar Brunton poll has more dismal news for Simon Bridges as he prepares to fight for his political future. He is at just 5% in the preferred prime minister polling, while Jacinda Ardern has jumped to 63% – not only her best-ever numbers in the poll, but the highest preferred prime minister rating in its 25-year history.

On the party standings, Labour is at 59%, National at 29% and the Greens at 4.7%.

Those numbers generally mirror the Newshub-Reid Research poll released on Monday which had Bridges on 4.5%, and Ardern on 59.5%. The same poll showed Labour on 56.5% in the party standings, easily enough to give them a majority on their own, with National dropping down to 30.6% support.

Tonight’s One News-Colmar Brunton poll

Tonight’s poll will likely be a body blow for Bridges as he faces a leadership challenge from Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller. The challenge, scheduled to be voted on at an emergency caucus meeting tomorrow at midday, has already damaged the National Party and its election chances, wrote Liam Hehir earlier today. “There is evidence that voters who aren’t partisans will use internal disagreement as a shorthand for evaluating a party’s policy chops,” he wrote.

“So, the path forward is clear. The first thing that must happen is settlement of the leadership question. The next thing is an end to public dissension.”

Also on The Spinoff today, Ben Thomas set out the stakes for National as it stares down the barrel of a general election campaign against a phenomenally popular incumbent prime minister. 

“Poor polling has its own awful, inexorable momentum,” he wrote.

“If even after a bounce they think National has no chance of forming a government, centre right voters may desert the party for Act, to strengthen the opposition ideologically if not numerically, or throw a lifeline to Bridges’ sworn adversary Winston Peters, to act as a ‘handbrake’ in government with Labour. The result is a vicious circle, if not an outright whirlpool.

5.50pm: New call for a public holiday to commemorate the Land Wars

Apparently inspired by talk of a Covid-19 public holiday (quickly kiboshed by Winston Peters), race relations commissioner Meng Foon has renewed his call for the New Zealand Land Wars to be commemorated with a day off.

“I was excited at the prospect that New Zealand may hold public holidays as a response to Covid and believes it’s the right time to mark these historical events. The New Zealand Wars are not currently marked with an official public holiday,” Foon said.

Foon said he had emailed the prime minister to argue for a national holiday, and would continue to lobby ministers on the issue. “This is what iwi have long called for,” he said.

“A ‘New Zealand Wars’ public holiday will serve as a memorial day just as ANZAC Day is, to pause and remember the events of the 1800s including the many battles where Māori lives were lost, were incarcerated, and land confiscated.”

3.30pm: On The Spinoff today

The National party caucus will meet under urgency tomorrow to decide who will lead them into September’s election. Ben Thomas assesses their options.

Emerging Māori and Pacific academics are already severely underrepresented at universities. Now they’re in jeopardy of being the first ones to go as universities restructure.

As the sharp, lockdown-induced reduction in peak-hour congestion starts to dissipate, let’s not lose this chance to improve Auckland’s legendarily terrible traffic, writes transportation researcher Paul Minett.

Not only could carbon-neutral dairy farming be a sustainable way to mitigate climate change, it could also be a profitable enterprise for New Zealand’s farmers, writes Prem Maan from Southern Pastures.

What to expect if you’re expecting, and worth a read even if you’re not – Simon Day shares ten invaluable tips from his first three months as a dad

2.30pm: No comment from Kaye on leadership bid

Nikki Kaye has refused to comment on speculation that she is Todd Muller’s running mate in his attempt to roll Simon Bridges as National party leader. In a laudable example of a journalist “actually getting out from behind their desk” and “not just interviewing their keyboard all day”, a Stuff reporter staked out Kaye’s house in order to put the question to her while she waited for a taxi to the airport. The MP declined to answer, but did let slip that she had had a “very busy” morning.

2.00pm: New twist in NZME-Stuff saga

There’s been another twist in the increasingly complex saga of NZME trying to buy Stuff, with the introduction of a mysterious third party into the narrative. A high court judge declined NZME’s attempt to force Stuff’s Australian owner Nine Entertainment back to the negotiating table earlier in the week, because, it’s now been revealed, doing so could have endangered negotiations with another interested party. It’s understood this potential new buyer wouldn’t need Commerce Commission approval to buy Stuff, which would probably make the whole business a bit more straightforward.

1.05pm: No new cases

For the fourth day in a row, there are no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has announced. There have now been just two new cases in the past 10 days.

The case number total remains at 1,503, 1,153 of which are confirmed and the rest probable. Five more people have recovered since yesterday, bringing the total to 1,452, which is 97% of all cases. There have been no further deaths. One person is in Middlemore hospital in Auckland, not requiring intensive care. Yesterday, 6,113 tests were carried out, bringing the total to 244,838.

Bloomfield said Pharmac had secured an an extra 360,000 doses of the northern hemisphere flu vaccine, in addition to the 1.6 million doses of the southern hemisphere version. It doesn’t offer quite as much protection as the southern hemisphere version but has been approved for use once those supplies have run out.

As of midday today, there had been 236,000 registrations on the NZ Covid Tracer app, Bloomfield said. 6,500 QR codes have been generated by businesses. He said updates had been made to the app to fix problems some people were experiencing with it.

Bloomfield also said 650 funerals and tangihanga had been registered since the start of level two.

With bars and pubs reopening today, Bloomfield said it was a great chance to catch up with a friend and support local businesses, but added that now is not the time to try out any new dance moves you’ve learnt over lockdown.

12.30pm: Bloomfield to give daily briefing

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield and no one else will give the daily briefing on New Zealand’s Covid-19 case numbers at the usual time of 1pm today. We’ll have all the updates, and you can watch here:

11.45am: New contact tracing app ‘pointless’ – National

National Party health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse says the government’s new contact tracing app is “pointless” and “not fit for purpose” – and it seems some experts are similarly underwhelmed.

On RNZ’s Morning Report this morning, Dr Rhema Vaithianathan, the director of AUT’s Centre for Social Data Analytics, said the NZ COVID Tracer app “doesn’t do the one thing contact tracing apps need to do – it doesn’t notify the user that they’ve been exposed to Covid-19.”

Writing for The Conversation, Australian ICT lecturer Dr Mahmoud Elkhodr found the app had “significant shortcomings”, and suggested it shouldn’t have been released in its current state. 

Woodhouse hit out at the app in a release issued this morning. “The government has clearly rushed out an app at the taxpayers’ expense that doesn’t meet the Public Health Order and can’t even be used as the prime minister claims,” he said.

10.45am: Ardern floats four-day work week idea

With Winston Peters having kiboshed the idea of new public holidays, attention has turned to another idea entertained this week by the prime minister: a four-day working week.

Jacinda Ardern has suggested that employers look into four-day work weeks as an option to encourage domestic tourism and stimulate the economy while the borders remain closed. Speaking in a Facebook live video on Tuesday night after meeting with tourism leaders in Rotorua, she said she’d heard from many New Zealanders that they would take more frequent domestic trips if their workplaces offered more time off and flexibility to do so.

“I hear lots of people suggesting we should have a four-day work week. Ultimately that really sits between employers and employees but as I’ve said there’s just so much we’ve learnt about Covid and that flexibility of people working from home, the productivity that can be driven out of that,” she said.

“I’d really encourage people to think about that if you’re an employer and in a position to do so. To think about if that’s something that would work for your workplace because it certainly would help tourism all around the country.”

9.45am: ERC to hear from churches

Representatives of various New Zealand churches will be dropping in to the Epidemic Response Committee on Zoom this morning. The list of submitters also includes a GP and the chief electoral officer, so there’s something for everybody.

Watch it here from 10am:

8.45am: Bridges’ ‘extraordinary act of political hari kari’

Political commentator Matthew Hooton says National Party leader Simon Bridges’ decision to call an urgent caucus meeting tomorrow to vote on the party leadership was “an extraordinary act of political hari kari” and another example of his “poor political judgement.” Speaking to Kim Hill on RNZ’s Morning Report today, Hooton said his understanding was that earlier in the week challenger Todd Muller didn’t quite have the numbers required to roll his leader. “It is entirely possible that if Simon Bridges had just shut up … some of Todd Muller’s supporters might have lost their nerve over the weekend and this could have fizzled out.” Hooton is now predicting Muller will lead the National Party into September’s election.

A 1 News Colmar Brunton poll expected to be released tonight could yet offer Bridges’ party leadership a lifeline, or it could just as easily prove the final nail in the coffin.

If you’re still wondering who Todd Muller is and what makes people think he could be a good National Party leader, Stuff political reporters Thomas Coughlan and Henry Cooke have that covered in good detail here. The Spinoff’s own Alex Braae also profiled the Bay of Plenty MP last year.

8.00am: Bars can now reopen

Today is Thursday, the 21st of May, meaning bars can now reopen in New Zealand. The rules of level two remain in place, however: there will be limited capacities of up to 100 people at a time, and individual groups must be no larger than 10 people. The “three S’s” must also be applied: all groups must be seated, socially distanced from other groups and served by a single server.

The current limits on gatherings are due to be reconsidered by the government when cabinet next sits on Monday. Any decision to relax them could come into effect by the end of next week.

7.50am: Sweden’s death rate now highest per capita in the world

Sweden has overtaken the UK and Italy to record the world’s highest Covid-19 death rate per capita in the last week, the Daily Telegraph reports. Figures collated by the Our World in Data website show it had 6.08 deaths per million inhabitants per day on a rolling seven-day average between May 13 and May 20. In comparison, UK, Belgium and the US had numbers of 5.57, 4.28 and 4.11 respectively last week. Belgium, Spain, Italy, the UK and France still have higher death rates per capita than Sweden overall, however.

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

The coup attempt is definitely on in the National party, and it’s going to happen fast. The NZ Herald reports a challenge has been confirmed in the form of a letter from Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller to his caucus colleagues. In it, he said an election win wasn’t possible with the current leadership. The letter was sent as part of an assertion that he had the numbers, but no names were attached to it.

The shared bid with Auckland Central’s Nikki Kaye has been disrupted somewhat by a move from incumbent Simon Bridges, to call a special caucus meeting for this Friday. It would otherwise have taken place at the regularly scheduled caucus meeting on Tuesday next week. That has widely been interpreted as a way of forcing the issue, and hurrying his opponents up before they can organise – and this piece in Politik carries the fascinating detail that Bridges reportedly moved quickly after being alerted to the coup by Judith Collins.

One interesting point of it all will be how the vote takes place – if it is solely a vote between Bridges and Muller, then the outcome could be very different compared to an initial vote of no-confidence in Bridges, followed by an open contest if he loses that. If you’re wondering if other challenges could then get in the ring, that seems unlikely – both Judith Collins and Mark Mitchell have now ruled out going for the leadership. Neither appears to have enough support within the caucus to make a bid viable.

The government has basically decided they’ve had enough of the Epidemic Response Committee, and won’t be putting anyone senior in front of it any more. Stuff reports a letter sent by leader of the house Chris Hipkins has been revealed by committee chair Simon Bridges, in which Hipkins argued that with parliament and regular select committees back, there was no longer a need to appear at the ERC. In response to that, Bridges said it is “disgraceful”, and indicative of a wider attitude among the government that they could dismiss scrutiny.

Two worryingly large sets of job losses have been indicated in the last day, at a pair of massive companies. The NZ Herald reports construction company Fletchers has proposed laying off 1000 people in New Zealand, and another 500 in Australia, making up about 10% of their total workforce. The company received about $67 million in wage subsidies, and says they’ll keep everyone on until the 12-week period ends, along with paying out redundancies. And E tū Union has revealed 1300 cabin crew jobs are being lost at Air New Zealand, reports Radio NZ, in one of the blows of a wider restructuring of the airline to fit their much-diminished place in a world without international travel.

Negative interest rates could be on the way, to which most people will ask – what is a negative interest rate? Stuff’s Susan Edmunds has written a useful explainer on this – in basic terms, it means that the Official Cast Rate (currently 0.25%) would go below zero, which would have the effect of incentivising banks to lend money, and penalising them if they held onto it. For those who want more information on the decision itself, this report from Interest gets into the weeds of whether the Reserve Bank is simply talking about negative interest rates to push the New Zealand Dollar down, on the contention that would improve conditions for the wider economy.

7.00am: Yesterday’s key stories

E tū union revealed that more than 1,300 Air NZ workers will lose their jobs as the airline starts cutting affected routes.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said cabinet will consider whether to increase the size limit on gatherings, which is currently 10, on Monday next week.

It was another day of zero new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, announced director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

An email from house leader Chris Hipkins directing ministers and senior officials to decline requests to appear before the Epidemic Response Committee was leaked, and the PM defended it.

The Epidemic Response Committee heard from bar owners and tourism business owners but not tourism minister Kelvin Davis, who cancelled his appearance, to much criticism from committee chair Simon Bridges.

Fletcher Building told the NZX it planned to get rid of 1,000 jobs in New Zealand and 500 jobs in Australia.

Simon Bridges confirmed he was being challenged for the leadership of the National Party, saying he was confident of survival.

US president Donald Trump escalated his threats against the WHO, saying he would permanently pull funding unless the organisation “commits to major substantive improvements in the next 30 days”.

The Ministry of Health launched its official contact tracing app, NZ Covid Tracer, which you can find out more about here.

Keep going!