Live updates, August 21: 11 new cases of Covid-19; no change to alert levels

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for August 21, 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 is in level two. More details here. Official information here. Contact me at stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

7.00pm: The day in sum

Jacinda Ardern confirmed cabinet will be reconvening on Monday to decide whether or not Auckland will be shifting out of alert level three, which won’t be happening before midnight Wednesday.

There were 11 new cases of Covid-19, nine in the community and two at the border.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield revealed an earlier confirmed case was connected to the cluster, possibly having caught the virus on the bus.

Reserve Bank data showed almost 11,000 homeowners were in arrears with their mortgages.

President Trump once again referred to New Zealand’s “massive outbreak”.

The annual suicide statistics were released, in the hope it would end speculation about suicide numbers during lockdown.

6.30pm: PM pays tribute to South Auckland family, thanks Pasifika community

At a special Zoom briefing for South Auckland and Pacific media this afternoon, Jacinda Ardern paid tribute to the South Auckland family at the centre of the recent Covid-19 outbreak in Auckland, as well as the Pacific community for the way it has responded to the call to get tested. Justin Latif attended the briefing – read his full report here.

6.00pm: Government orders review of Transmission Gully amid delays and soaring costs

The government this afternoon ordered a “wide-ranging” review of Wellington’s troubled Transmission Gully project, after Waka Kotahi/NZTA announced the 27km stretch of road won’t open until September 2021 and will cost another $208.5 million.

The public-private partnership project has been in negotiations since the first lockdown in March, reports RNZ, when the project was forced to shut down for five weeks. As part of the settlement agreement, the NZTA is making a compensation payment of $145.5m to CPB HEB, the builder, to cover the costs of delays resulting from Covid-19. About $19m of that has already been paid out to keep the project going through the winter months and negotiation period. It is also making payments of $12.5m to the contractor, Wellington Gateway Partnership, and about $5m to maintenance contractor Ventia.

Transport minister Phil Twyford said the Infrastructure Commission had been asked to oversee an urgent and wide-ranging review into the project, reports Stuff. “It appears the agreement signed up to by the former government was loose and failed to protect taxpayers’ money. It seems to have been rushed through without the necessary due diligence being carried out.”

He said Wellingtonians and taxpayers “deserve to know exactly what has happened”.

Latest:

  • The current alert levels will be staying in place until at least Wednesday.
  • Jacinda Ardern will be providing another update after the weekend.
  • New Zealand has 11 new cases of Covid-19, with nine linked to the community cluster.
  • Genome sequencing has now linked the Covid-positive St Lukes mall worker to the cluster.
  • It’s still not known how a Rydges Hotel worker contracted the virus.

2.00pm: Our latest Covid data, tracked

1.10pm: ‘We need to stay the course’ – alert levels remaining until at least Wednesday

Updated

The prime minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed that cabinet will be reconvening on Monday to decide whether or not Auckland will be shifting out of alert level three. “We need to stay the course,” Ardern said.

At this stage, Ardern said, “we are not dealing with multiple outbreaks” in Auckland. Ardern noted the number of cases linked to shopping centres and schools. “Imagine how much bigger that outbreak and cluster had been if all those places hadn’t been closed … it could have been enormous,” she said.

The vast majority of cases since this outbreak began were cases we had contact-traced, were already in isolation and were then tested, said Ardern.

There is nothing, Ardern said, to suggest we should lower our alert level restrictions ahead of next Wednesday – but also nothing to suggest we need to escalate further. Given the commitment to providing 48 hours notice, there was now no way the restrictions would be lifted any earlier than the end of Wednesday.

“There is nothing to suggest we need to change our course,” she said.

“We have made a good start but it’s critically important that over the weekend and early next week we stick to the level three rules,” she said. “No one wants to go backwards.”

Prompted perhaps by President Trump’s recent remarks about New Zealand’s “big surge”, Ardern has pointedly compared the US case numbers with NZ. “You have all played a role,” she said. Ardern later added: “I think everyone can see that in New Zealand, today, we are talking 11 cases, whereas the United States has been dealing with over 40,000 cases.”

“It’s not just whether you have cases, it’s how you choose to deal with them as a nation, and I personally am incredibly proud of the approach that all New Zealanders have taken in the battle against Covid-19,” Ardern said.

Would future outbreaks require a move to a lockdown? “No, not necessarily,” said Ardern. She said the big cluster we’ve been dealing with has some features that made it particularly difficult, being located in a densely populated area where there is a lot of social interaction.

“The first case was not linked to any obvious source, and it was clear when we traced backwards there were more people who had been infected earlier.”If the case of the Rydges worker had been all we were dealing with, she said, where close contacts were quickly identified and isolated, it’s unlikely we would have needed to go into lockdown.

Ardern added that the Rydges Hotel case demonstrates both how tricky the virus is and how our current systems are working.

The decision on Monday will involve looking at the trends in the transmission of the virus, Ardern said, along with the capacity and capability of testing and contact tracing, effectiveness of our self-isolation facilities, the impact on local economies and at risk communities, and how people have been following the rules.

When questioned on whether it was possible Auckland could drop directly from alert level three to one, Ardern said she wouldn’t “rule anything in or out”.

Revealing he uses a home made mask made by the mother of his son’s friend, Bloomfield demonstrated the way to wear a mask. He noted that he had some difficulty with fogging glasses. Helpfully, we have a guide to that spectacle fogging problem here. 

Bloomfield also said he’s been sent a face mask with a Tardis on it, from a member of the public. If the member of the public is reading this, please email me here.

An artist’s impression of Bloomfield wearing a TARDIS face mask

Under strict instructions from my editor, I have been instructed to embed the following video. My apologies.

1.00pm: 11 new cases of Covid-19, nine from the community

Updated

There are 11 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 today. Nine have been linked to the existing community, and two are imported from overseas. That brings the total number of active cases up to 105.

Eight people, all linked to the community cluster, are now receiving hospital care for Covid-19. Seven are stable on a ward and one person, at Middlemore Hospital, remains in the intensive care unit.

Five of the new community cases are linked to churches in South Auckland, said Bloomfield, and four are household contacts. There are a total of 223 possible contacts of the cluster from churches, said Bloomfield, 170 of whom have been testing with pending results. He thanked the churches for their cooperation. “It’s been a partnership operation and that’s why we’ve been so successful,” he said.

The possibility that the Rydges Hotel maintenance worker contracted Covid-19 from an elevator still remains an important line of investigation, Bloomfield said.

The total number of confirmed cases is now 1,315. The two new imported cases are a woman in her 30s who travelled from London, and a man in his 50s who came from Basra, Iraq.

Covid-positive St Lukes mall worker now linked to cluster – Bloomfield

Genome sequencing has now confirmed that a St Lukes mall worker who tested positive for the virus does have a connection to the community cluster, despite previously being under investigation.

One specific line of inquiry is that this case and another case may have been on the same bus, said Bloomfield. He reminded people of the importance of wearing masks on public transport. The Auckland bus that may have been the link between two cases was on the morning of August 12.

Bloomfield said AT Hop card data was being used to locate those who were sitting near the positive case. He said the fact the bus trip took place just before Auckland moved to alert level three was promising, as the movement since of those who may have been exposed had been limited.

That means there is just one remaining case under investigation – 88 of the 89 cases not connected to the border are linked to the one cluster.

12.50pm: Bloomfield to reveal new cases, PM to talk alert levels

Ashley Bloomfield will be revealing the latest Covid-19 cases at today’s 1pm media briefing. He’ll be joined by the prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who will be discussing cabinet’s discussions around our current alert level settings.

Watch below:

12.45pm: Thousands default on mortgage repayments, data shows

Reserve Bank data shows almost 11,000 homeowners were in arrears with their mortgages at the end of the first week of August, due to the financial toll of Covid-19.

As RNZ reports, more than 240,000 mortgage payments have also been missed since April – worth about $2.2 billion. Additionally, more than 83,000 mortgage deferral requests were lodged since the end of March, representing about 13% of all mortgages.

Read more here

11.15am: The day ahead – when will our alert levels drop?

As mentioned in an earlier update, cabinet will today be reviewing our current alert levels. Currently, Auckland sits in alert level three and the rest of the country remains in level two. There are a number of considerations that will be made today, taking into account the latest advice from Ashley Bloomfield and the Ministry of Health.

Current cases

According to the Ministry of Health, New Zealand currently has 101 active cases of Covid-19. There are 78 cases linked to the Auckland community cluster, and 21 are in quarantine. The remaining two cases have no known links: one of these is the Rydges Hotel maintenance worker, and another was a worker at the St Lukes mall in Auckland.

Despite the community transmission, early signs suggest the decision to move back into lockdown is working. There has been no sudden surge in cases, and the fact that only two confirmed cases have no known links to either the border or the cluster is promising.

Testing numbers

On Wednesday, 18,091 tests were processed, bringing the total test count since the recent outbreak to 154,000.

“Based on testing, we do have a strong indication that there has been no unseen transmission outside of the border and aside from the mystery Rydges case, and that does not seem to have resulted in any further transmission,” Hipkins told media yesterday.

Similarly, Bloomfield was encouraged by the rise in testing; when questioned on the level of testing outside of Auckland, Bloomfield said he has been satisfied. About two thirds of the testing has been done in Auckland, Bloomfield said, since the recent outbreak.

Contact tracing

As of yesterday there were 1,626,500 registered users of the government’s Covid tracer app.  If you go back just over a month, there were just 596,000 people on the app. The recent surge in users as a result of Covid-19 returning to the community demonstrates that while New Zealanders may have been complacent about the virus at alert level one, they’re a lot more concerned now.

Yesterday, as part of a government announcement about beefing up our managed isolation and quarantine facilities, the government announced it will be trialling the CovidCard (or similar technology) in a facility. This could then be rolled out to all facilities in the coming months.

Since August 11, the Ministry of Health said 1,996 close contacts have been identified and 1,921 have been contacted and are now self-isolating.

Level 1.5?

There has been a lot of talk over the past weeks about a potential “level 1.5”, which could see the country return to a degree of freedom – but with some added protections in place, such as mask usage.

Earlier in the week, Ashley Bloomfield discussed what a possible alert level between one and two could look like.

“I think we should aim to get back to life as normal as possible, but the new normal will include I think perhaps a little more physical distancing, more frequent availability and use of hand gels, possibly even use of masks in some settings,” he said.

“What I sense is that all New Zealanders would prefer that we stayed in alert level one and would be prepared to perhaps modify what our behaviours are in alert level one…

“It may be that there’s somewhere between a one and two so we can maintain that really open economy and do as much as we’d like to in terms of attending large events and so on.”

It’s also possible that with Auckland currently in level three, the supercity could drop to something in between two and three in order to further limit the spread of Covid-19.

When will we find out?

Jacinda Ardern will be fronting today’s 1pm media briefing, alongside the director general of health Ashley Bloomfield. It’s expected she will reveal more about cabinet’s considerations this morning, however, a decision on our alert levels is unlikely unless a sudden change is required.

Keeping with the usual trend of 48-hours notice being provided, it’s likely Ardern will make a formal announcement on our alert levels at a press conference on Monday.

9.25am: Trump triples down on claim NZ has had ‘massive’ outbreak

It’s like he’s obsessed with us. President Trump has name-dropped New Zealand for the third time in a week, calling the five new cases of Covid-19 we had yesterday a “massive outbreak”.

Trump also repeated his very disputable claim that his handling of the pandemic has been “incredible”.

9.05am: ‘There have been mistakes’ – Sir Brian Roche

“We seem to want to beat ourselves up for every infringement, and as a citizen I find that surprising,” Sir Brian Roche, who is now in charge of a new team set up to oversee existing efforts to stamp out the virus, said this morning.

The team was announced yesterday in the wake of border bungles and the resurgence of Covid-19 in the community. It will be co-chaired by Heather Simpson, who recently did a review of the country’s health system.

When questioned this morning on Newstalk ZB about the lack of tests at the border, Roche said: “A mistake was made, there’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of risk. No one goes to work to make a mistake, we shouldn’t overstate it.

“There have been mistakes made. There have been some mis-communications – let’s just simplify it, sort it out and move on.”

Roche said it was a “cheap shot” to criticise the fact that the health response involves a number of different departments, but did say that sums up the public sector.

“This is a cross Government thing – it’s led by health, the health voice is very loud but it requires a collective effort. Not everybody works as easily in that environment as you would hope,” he said.

8.05am: Wage subsidy extension open for applications

Eligible businesses are today able to apply for a new two-week extension of the wage subsidy, providing up to $1,171.60 per worker.

Applications for the new wage subsidy and current extension will be open on the MSD website from 1pm today, until the start of September.

“The wage subsidy has protected more than 1.7 million jobs and we know it works. That’s why we moved quickly to introduce the new wage subsidy to support businesses for the two weeks Auckland is at alert level three,” finance minister Grant Robertson said.

7.55am: Release of suicide stats hoped to end speculation

It’s hoped the release of the annual suicide statistics will end speculation about suicide numbers, director of the Suicide Prevention Office, Carla na Nagara said.

“Inaccurate, speculative and distressing information about the relationship between suicide risk and the Covid-19 response is unhelpful and has the potential to cause significant harm,” she said.

“While the Covid-19 response may have significant, long term effects on people’s lives, an increase in suicides is not inevitable,” according to na Nagara.

The annual provisional suicide statistics show that in the year to June 30, 2020, there was a drop from 13.93 per 100,000 people to 13.01.

7.45am: Cabinet to review alert levels today

Today marks a week since Jacinda Ardern announced Auckland would be remaining in alert level three, and the rest of the country in level two, for a further 12 days. At this stage, the restrictions are due to change at midnight on Wednesday.

Cabinet will today be considering the latest health advice and whether or not to extend the lockdown or end it early. RNZ’s reporting that cabinet will not be making “a definitive decision” today on whether to relax the alert levels, however.

The prime minister will be fronting today’s 1pm briefing where she is expected to discuss the outcome of cabinet’s discussions. We’ll bring that to you live this afternoon.

7.35am: Top stories from The Bulletin

We’ve had a glut of border policies announced in recent days, as parties look to explain what they’d do differently in an attempt to prevent outbreaks. We’ll focus the most on the National party plan – for the obvious reason that they’re the party that could form an alternative government. But there have also been ideas put forward by Act and NZ First worth mentioning.

A top line aspect of it all would be the establishment of a new agency to oversee the borders, reports Radio NZ. According to deputy leader Gerry Brownlee, that would be “resourced to act as a centre of expertise. It will have the personnel, technology and capability to provide a world-class defence against Covid-19.” Party leader Judith Collins also made the point that the current approach had been stood up in an “ad-hoc” way, and a better system was needed. The policy comes the day after the government directed the defence force to deploy many more soldiers at managed isolation and quarantine facilities.

Another major aspect of the National plan is to require everyone flying into New Zealand to return a negative Covid-19 test before boarding. That wouldn’t necessarily preclude still having to do the quarantine period, and such a policy would almost certainly reduce the likelihood of people with the virus coming in. The issues for and against the idea were debated by Collins and health minister Chris Hipkins in successive interviews on Newstalk ZB – Hipkins said he had actually considered such a policy, before rejecting it, because “a number of people coming into New Zealand gain their infections while in transit. Between when they leave and when they arrive is actually the highest risk time for gaining the virus.” The Greens also criticised this one on the grounds it might strand many New Zealanders overseas if they couldn’t access a test, let alone if they were actually sick and needed to get home for care.

Finally, National’s full release included suggestions that lockdowns could be conducted in more targeted ways, for shorter durations. This would be part of a wider policy direction (which in fairness, is shared by the government) of aiming to reduce the need for lockdowns. Unfortunately, targeted lockdowns are probably a bit of a red herring, as was seen in Victoria where attempts were made to limit restrictions, until such a policy became untenable. All in all though, the policy represents a fairly firm commitment from National to an elimination strategy. As Justin Giovannetti writes, National’s policy also represents a quite important philosophical change in approach in recent weeks – “the opposition’s plan builds on the border system created by the Labour-led government and veers away from ideas that would allow businesses or universities to open private isolation facilities.”

Read more and subscribe to The Bulletin here

7.30am: Yesterday’s key stories

NZ had five more cases of Covid-19, all linked to the community cluster.

It’s believed the Rydges Hotel worker who tested positive earlier this week may have caught the virus from an elevator, Ashley Bloomfield said.

A raft of security enhancements are being rolled out to managed isolation and quarantine facilities, including thermal CCTV cameras.

National will create a new border agency to protect the country from Covid-19 if elected in October, it announced.

Winston Peters said the court got it wrong when it ruled the first nine days of the nationwide lockdown were illegal.

The Greens called for guaranteed paid sick leave to be doubled to 10 days.

Act released its Covid response policy, including the promise that most returnees would be able to isolate at home.

Former president Barack Obama excoriated Donald Trump in a speech to the Democratic National Convention.

President Trump doubled down on his claim that NZ’s seeing “a big surge” in Covid-19 cases

Read all the key stories in yesterday’s live updates.



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