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Finance Minister Grant Robertson at a Covid-19 media conference at Parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Finance Minister Grant Robertson at a Covid-19 media conference at Parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

SocietyApril 24, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, April 24: Five new cases, one new death; leave support scheme extended

Finance Minister Grant Robertson at a Covid-19 media conference at Parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Finance Minister Grant Robertson at a Covid-19 media conference at Parliament (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 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

There were five new cases of Covid-19 confirmed in New Zealand, and one death

The death was a man in his 60s at Rosewood Rest Home in Christchurch. His was the 10th Covid-19 death linked to the Rosewood cluster and the 17th in total

The government announced it will be extending and broadening its leave support scheme offering for at-risk workers who need to self-isolate under alert level three

Epidemiologist Michael Baker warned of the danger of case numbers growing again if people get complacent 

Demand for food parcels has more than tripled nationwide under lockdown, the Salvation Army’s monitoring report revealed

Both Countdown and Foodstuffs supermarkets announced they would will be cutting the 10% bonus they’ve been paying workers throughout lockdown starting from the week after next

Queenstown Lakes District mayor Jim Boult spelled out the huge hit the area has taken from Covid-19 in a speech delivered to councillors, as a survey of tourism operators revealed they expected to cut as many as half of their staff this year.

6.30pm: Today on The Spinoff

Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris explain what we mean when we talk about the ‘elimination’ of Covid-19

New data visualisations from Chris McDowall show how well we’ve been following the instruction to stay home.

The Salvation Army has issued its second Covid-19 monitoring report, urging the government to take ‘urgent and radical’ action, reports Josie Adams.

Emily Writes watches her sons hold on to connections in isolation in the first part of a new series sharing the stories of families learning from home during lockdown

Looking ahead to the rebuild, consultant Roger Dennis looks at the lessons that can be applied from the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake

New Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer talks Covid-19 (among other things) with Ātea Editor Leonie Hayden

The Spinoff’s politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime assess how our political leaders have fared in the Covid-19 response

Finally, if you feel like a visit to Auckland Museum this weekend, you can – online, of course. Elly Strang pays a visit to Auckland Museum At Home

5.45pm: (Some) Air NZ passengers entitled to refunds

Air New Zealand passengers with flight booking that were cancelled as a result of Covid-19 have been battling to receive refunds from the airline over the last month. Now Consumer New Zealand has confirmed that at least some of them will be legally entitled to a refund.

Customers travelling to and from the United States and from the European Union should be allowed to receive refunds, Stuff reports Consumer New Zealand as saying. Refund rules and regulations for airlines are a fairly complicated business, and it varies from country to country. Over 240,000 grounded passengers have applied to receive credits for their cancelled flights, but many who would have preferred refunds have so far found themselves out of luck.

Read the full story on Stuff

5.00pm: Reminder to #StandAtDawn tomorrow

Tomorrow is Anzac Day, and commemorations will be done a little differently than usual. With all public services having been cancelled, the New Zealand Defence Force and the RSA are encouraging New Zealanders to instead #StandAtDawn tomorrow morning – at the end of your driveway, outside your front door, even in your lounge, anywhere so long as you stick to your bubble and practice responsible social distancing – in remembrance of our fallen soldiers. An Anzac Day service will be broadcast on both RNZ National and NewstalkZB from 6am, with the Last Post, Ode of Remembrance, national anthems and an address by defence minister Ron Mark. More information can be found here.

If you were still thinking of heading out of town for the long weekend, the word from the government, police and this live blog is don’t. Police have reminded New Zealanders that we’re still under alert level four, just like Easter weekend, and they’ll be out patrolling the motorways and so on to make sure only essential travel is being undertaken, just like Easter weekend.

Another important thing to take into consideration is supermarket opening hours – as usual for Anzac Day, the shops won’t be open until 1.00pm tomorrow.

4.30pm: Aucklanders wanted to count bikes this weekend

If you’ve been outside at all in the past four weeks, you’ll probably be aware that every man and his dog seems to have taken up cycling under lockdown. Who would have thought that with way fewer cars on the road, bike rides would become that much more appealing? This is what Bike Auckland has been saying all along. They’ve been lobbying to make things better for cyclists for ages, and now they have all the anecdotal evidence in the world to show how keen people are to ride bikes when the conditions are favourable. What they don’t have so much of, it seems, is hard and fast data. 

Auckland Transport is good at counting cars, Bike Auckland says, but it only has a handful of automatic bike counters set up across the city, so most of our lockdown bike rides are going uncounted. That’s why they want Aucklanders to take part in the Backyard Bike Count this weekend. Basically all you need to do is watch your street for 15 minutes and count how many pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles you see go past. They’ll then use these numbers to continue to make the case for better and safer cycling. They explain it a bit better on their website, where you can download the official form to fill out.

3.30pm: Mayor outlines devastating impact on Queenstown economy

Queenstown Lakes District mayor Jim Boult has spelled out the huge hit the area has taken from Covid-19 in a speech delivered to councillors yesterday. In the space of a month they had “gone from New Zealand’s most successful district, with a growing population and a growing GDP, to potentially one of the poorest districts in New Zealand,” he said. 

Boult cited a “noted economist” as having forecast the economy of the tourist hotspot could shrink by up to 40%. “The sad and harsh reality is that the cold breath of what has struck us now will be felt for years to come,” Boult told councillors. A survey of the tourism sector released today revealed operators expected to lay off as many as half their workers this year. 

Read the full speech on the ODT

3.00pm: Today’s graph

The graph of New Zealand’s active vs recovered cases continues to look a little bit like a kiwi. Once you see it, etc. More fresh daily Covid-19 dataviz from Chris McDowall can be viewed on The Spinoff here, and may we also interest you in some cool maps that show how good we’ve been at staying at home these last four weeks.

2.50pm: Rebates for Wellington meal deliveries

Wellington’s economic development agency WellingtonNZ is offering $250,000 worth of rebates to help support hospitality businesses doing meal deliveries under alert level three. Under the scheme, eligible businesses will be able to claim a rebate of $10 per delivery for the expected two weeks of level three, up to a maximum of $500 per establishment. You can read more and find out how to apply here.

2.30pm: Guidelines for sport at alert level three

As promised by Grant Robertson wearing his (metaphorical) sports minister’s hat at today’s media briefing, the Sport New Zealand website has released up-to-date guidance on what sports people can and can’t do under alert level three. Basically, you can play sports that don’t break any of the usual social distancing rules, so no contact sports, no playing with or against anybody who’s not in your bubble, nothing dangerous. If you are planning on rocking up to the golf or tennis club for an intra-bubble tournament, then be aware that all public facilities – clubhouses, changing rooms and so on – will be closed, and there’ll probably be some new rules you’ll need to follow around contact tracing and so on. If you want to try and figure out whether or not your favourite niche sport can go ahead under alert level three, here are the full guidelines (it’s a PDF).

2.15pm: Leave support scheme extended

The government’s leave support scheme offering for workers who need to take time off to self-isolate will be extended with its criteria broadened under alert level three. Under alert level four the scheme has been available to essential workers who were unable to work from home and needed to self-isolate because they, or someone on their bubble, were considered at high risk of Covid-19. With more people about to head back to their workplaces under alert level three, the scheme is now being made available to all businesses, organisations, and self-employed people, so long as they meet the existing criteria. 

“This expanded scheme means more workers who need to stay home to break the chain of transmission can do so and continue to maintain an income,” said workplace relations and safety minister Iain Lees-Galloway. “It also gives more businesses support to protect their people and keep them employed.” The weekly rate of the scheme is $585.80 for full-time workers and $350 for part-time workers.

1.45pm: Shortland Street to start filming again

South Pacific Pictures has today announced it will resume pre-production for Shortland Street on Tuesday, 28th April and recommence filming on Thursday, 30th April.

In consultation with TVNZ, the decision has been made to go back into production following the guidelines set out by the Government for a return to work at level three. South Pacific Pictures have put a plan in place that aims to ensure the safety of all those who work on the show when production resumes.

Shortland Street will continue three nights a week on TVNZ 2 for the time being.

South Pacific Pictures CEO Kelly Martin says, “Our absolute priority is to maintain the health and wellbeing of our cast and crew. We believe that by following the guidelines and regulations issued, and by maintaining our key work place practices, we have created a safe working environment.”

Shortland Street is the country’s longest running serial drama, and employs dozens of people across the industry, from writers to actors to crew. It will be the first TVNZ drama to return to production after alert level four, following current affairs shows such as Seven Sharp and Have You Been Paying Attention?

1.05pm: Five new cases, one further death

There are five new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand today. That is made up of two new confirmed cases and three probable. This brings the combined total to 1,456.

One is linked to overseas travel, three to existing clusters and one is still under investigation, but possibly linked to overseas travel, director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay said.

There has been one further death, a man in his 60s who was a resident at Rosewood rest home in Christchurch. Finance minister Grant Robertson offered his condolences.

The man had underlying health conditions and was considered to be a probable case of Covid-19, McElnay said.

McElnay said 6,961 tests were carried out yesterday, a new record. This brings the total number of tests conducted to 108,238.

Community testing is ongoing, and McElnay said a plan to conduct targeted testing of vulnerable groups across New Zealand was in development.

McElnay said data collection over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic in New Zealand showed most early cases affected those entering New Zealand from overseas, either returning residents or visitors.

“It’s not really telling us that we’ve got a particular problem in our Māori community or in our Pacific community.”

There are now 1,095 recovered cases of Covid-19, an increase of 30 from yesterday.

Today there are eight people in hospital, including one in ICU at Middlemore.

Economic recovery

Robertson said there were three waves to our economic recovery plan: first, fighting the virus and cushioning the blow; then positioning for recovery and kick-starting the economy; and last, resetting and rebuilding the economy.

“The best economic response to the virus was always going to be a strong public health response, and that’s why our strategy from the start has been to go hard and go early,” Robertson said.

As we move into level three, construction, forestry, manufacturing and online retail will be able to resume activity with the appropriate safety measures. Robertson estimated that around 400,000 New Zealanders will return to work under level three.

Robertson believes the vast majority of applicants have accessed the wage subsidy scheme for the right reasons. “We owe it to those workers and employers to make sure their good work isn’t undermined by anyone abusing the scheme. We also have a duty to all New Zealanders to ensure taxpayer money is going where it is intended to support the economy,” he said.

Robertson said applicants are already aware they could be asked to repay the wage subsidy or be prosecuted for false applications.

Robertson said 292 allegations of wage subsidy fraud had been received, and that the Ministry of Social Development has resolved 88 of these and are working on the balance.

In addition to these allegations, 1,281 applicants have voluntarily advised the government they want to refund all or part of their wage subsidy payments, amounting to $16.2 million total; $7 million has already been paid back by these volunteers.

A further 56 applicants have been asked to refund all or part of their wage subsidy, amounting to a total of $1.25 million.

When asked if he thought, in light of the food parcel situation, that New Zealand has a food poverty problem, Robertson just said he knew low-income New Zealanders were struggling.

“I think what we have is a situation where many New Zealanders have found their outgoings to be ones they’re struggling to meet, and I think for low-income New Zealanders that’s a particular burden.”

He said that this is why there had been an increase to benefits of $25 per week at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, and said the increased winter energy payment in May should help, too.

As the Salvation Army monitoring report outlined, 200,000 workers in New Zealand are on temporary work visas, and this includes many from the Pacific community.

Robertson said migrant workers who have lost employment are able to access the services provided by civil defence and emergency management.

He said the upcoming budget would address economic recovery in more detail.

Level three activities

Sport New Zealand will this afternoon release detailed guidance on sport and recreation activities that are possible under level three from next Tuesday, Robertson said.

Robertson acknowledged that there might be teething problems moving into level three, as New Zealanders adjust to new rules. However, he felt we’d settle into it quickly.

“I trust New Zealanders that they know how important finishing the job is. Level three is still a very restrictive environment. While we’re going to see more economic activity, those core principles still remain: stay in your bubble, stay at home if you can, keep it local.”

McElnay warned that we would need to maintain a high level of protection around those vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19, such as the elderly and the immunocompromised, throughout level three and also level two.

Work is underway as to what professional sport may be able to resume under alert level two, Roberston said.

“Sport New Zealand has been working with the major sporting codes on designing a potential way that that could occur,” he said.

“Clearly that would have to be cognisant of the rules of level two, for instance the fact that we won’t have large mass gatherings, so if there is to be professional sport played it will largely be in empty stadia.”

There were issues of team bubble safety and travel to take in to consideration, he added.

Robertson reminded anyone planning on playing golf or tennis at alert level three to adhere to the core public health principles: “Only in your bubble, do not congregate, do make sure that you only use your own equipment.”

Clubhouses would not be open and any bookings would need to be made online, he said, adding that he expected many clubs would not be open at level three as a result.

Trans-Tasman bubble

Robertson said that discussions about a potential trans-Tasman bubble are at a very early level. “We all know that one of the things that’s allowed us to get on top this virus are our border restrictions,” he said. “Sometime in the future, it may be possible; but I don’t think people should get ahead of themselves.”

12.40pm: Coming up at today’s media conference – watch live

Speaking at the standard 1.00pm presser, we’ll have finance minister Grant Robertson, and director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay.

Watch it live here:

11.45am: MSD auditing the wage subsidy

A release from the Beehive has made it clear that those claiming the wage subsidy are going to face scrutiny.

The government says a dedicated team will be set up by MSD, to work with IRD and MBIE, which will look into claimants. Priority will be given to businesses where a complaint has already been made.

Finance minister Grant Robertson says investigations are about demonstrating the principle of fairness to those who genuinely needed the support. “We owe it to those workers and employers to make sure their good work isn’t undermined by anyone abusing the scheme. We also have a duty to all New Zealanders to ensure taxpayer money is going where it is intended to support the economy.”

So far $10.4 bn has been paid out since the scheme was set up, which for scale is more than four times as much as all Treaty of Waitangi settlements combined.

So far, the auditing process has resulted in 39 applicants being asked to pay the money back, reports the NZ Herald. Almost a thousand claimants have also voluntary paid the money back.

In those situations, it isn’t necessarily a case of businesses being greedy and trying to rort the system, because from the beginning the scheme allowed businesses to make a claim if they projected a significant loss of revenue, rather than just if they had experienced it.

The other scrutiny safeguard on the scheme has come in the form of a public register, showing all those who made a claim, and how much was claimed.

11.10am: What if we get complacent at level three?

Warnings are being sounded against a return to complacency as we move into level three.

Speaking to Morning Report, epidemiologist Michael Baker said that there was a danger of case numbers growing again if people relaxed too much, or if they stopped following strict physical distancing procedures.

However, Baker also argued that New Zealand is in a better position than many other countries coming out of lockdown. This is because other countries are using lockdowns as a suppression mechanism, rather than a way to eliminate the virus. (For more on what the latter term means, read this)

If a country is following a suppression strategy, then it still means that there will be many unknown cases of the virus in the community, raising the risk of a spike in cases if they then come out of their lockdown.

Based on widespread negative results being returned in community testing in different regions around New Zealand, it is not believed that there is a large number of unknown cases here.

10.40am: WHO funding could be gone forever, says Pompeo

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the country might never restore funding to the World Health Organisation that has recently been cut.

Previously, the US had been the biggest donor in the world to the UN organisation, contributing about $400 million a year. However, that was stripped away after US President Donald Trump accused the organisation of being in the pocket of China.

In an interview reported on by Reuters, Pompeo hinted that having the funding restored would take more than just a change of leadership at the top of the WHO – rather, they’d need to see a “structural fix”.

Other countries have decried the US move, saying that it threatens the world’s ability to respond to global health emergencies.

10.25am: Major construction in Auckland will start

As we move to level three next week, work on some major construction projects in Auckland will start up again. “We want to get back to work as quickly as possible to kick-start economic activity and contribute to job growth recovery,” said Mayor Phil Goff.

“With the injection of Government capital under the infrastructure upgrade decision made in January, and the shovel-ready projects to be announced in May, Auckland can play a key role in working with Government to promote economic recovery.”

For a month from Tuesday, standard construction hours will be extended through to 8pm, and will now include Sundays from 9am-4pm.

Projects that ceased operation during lockdown include the massive city rail link project, as well as construction on Karangahape Road construction and around Wynyard Quarter.

10.15am: OIA suspension suggestion headed off

A scandal could be brewing in Wellington after a public servant suggested that the Official Information Act should be suspended during the level four lockdown.

Newsroom broke the story this morning, about a proposal that would have basically cut off one of the key mechanisms of public accountability if it had gone through.

Ministers have denied they had anything to do with the proposal, and Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier stepped in to block it before it got anywhere.

9.30am: Supermarket bonus pay getting cut

Both Countdown and Foodstuffs supermarkets will be cutting the 10% bonus they’ve been paying workers throughout lockdown starting from the week after next. For many workers, the bump in pay of just under two dollars an hour has been a lifeline.

First Union’s secretary for retail, finance, and commerce Tali Williams told RNZ that many supermarket workers were overworked, stressed, and struggling with rent. “The 10% bonus from employers was one of the only things keeping them afloat.”

A spokesperson for Countdown said it will continue to pay staff who are staying home because they’re at high risk for Covid-19, staff will continue to get a food discount of 10%.

9.15am: Demand for food parcels triples nationwide, PPE still missing

The Salvation Army have released their second Covid-19 monitoring report, which says that in the past week they’ve delivered 5,895 food parcels; 356% more than they delivered in the week before lockdown. In the lower North Island, demand has increased tenfold.

One front line worker in The Salvation Army’s housing services reported feeling unsafe due, in some part, to a lack of PPE. “The ongoing struggle for PPE for Epsom staff has been stupidly hard, and the DHBs have been negligent in managing this supply,” reads the excerpt. “In one of our hostels, staff over the last four weeks have had 100 people a day to cope with in their bubble”.

Josie Adams has put together a full report on what the Salvation Army have to say – you can read it here.

9.00am: Buzzy data visualisations show how cities followed lockdown

For a month now, we’ve been asked to stay at home to stop the spread of Covid-19. New data visualisations now show how well we’re following that instruction. Read Josie Adams’ full explanation of what the data shows here, or watch the visualisations from Chris McDowall here:

8.30am: World updates: Antibody tests show potential scale of New York outbreak

As many as one in five New Yorkers may have been infected with Covid-19, according to analysis of antibody tests carried out in the city.

The New York Times reports that it suggests (but importantly, doesn’t prove) two important points. Firstly, that the outbreak is much more widespread than was previously believed, potentially infecting as many as 2.7 million people. But secondly, that might also suggest that Covid-19 is less deadly than previously thought.

Having said that, the numbers of deaths in New York remain dire. At least 15,000 people have died with Covid-19 in the state, and an additional 5,000 people died without being tested, and are presumed to be casualties of the pandemic. There has also been speculation that even those figures undercount the true death toll.

There is also no further clarity from the antibody testing as to whether those who have had Covid-19 are subsequently immune to it, meaning that this does not necessarily constitute evidence in favour of a ‘herd immunity’ strategy.

Meanwhile, hopes have been dashed about the effectiveness of an initially promising drug to treat Covid-19, reports the Guardian. In the first full trial of Remdesivir, it was found to be no better than a placebo.

7.45am: Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris explain what ‘elimination’ of Covid-19 means

New Zealand is pursuing an ‘elimination’ strategy to counter the coronavirus pandemic. But that word, as with many terms in science, is not necessarily the same as its common usage. Dr Siouxsie Wiles explains all here.

Plus, if you prefer to learn visually, this gif from Toby Morris might help:

Read Toby Morris’s Side Eye comic, created with Siouxsie Wiles, here. And more of Siouxsie’s writing here.

7.20am: Covid-19 updates from today’s edition of The Bulletin:

New Zealand’s carbon emissions cutting pledge will be reviewed by the new Climate Change Commission. As Eloise Gibson at Stuff reports, it may result in the target for 2030 – currently set at carbon emissions being cut by 30% below 2005 levels – will be strengthened. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep global warming under 2 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels, but at the moment, even if you take every country’s most ambitious pledge as the standard for what will actually happen, we’re still not remotely close to hitting that target. The Climate Change Commission will consult the public as part of the process of deciding whether a stronger target is needed.

On a global scale (which is a pretty important scale when discussing worldwide climate change) it comes at a very delicate time. In some ways, it’s pretty unusual right now for a country to be considering strengthening the targets, because right now a lot of emissions reductions projects are being put on hold. It’s worth going back to a piece from November last year for elaboration on why this isn’t just a Covid problem – this Vox report forecast that the 20s would be a “perilous decade” for the Paris Agreement, because of a worldwide retreat to nationalism and isolationism, led by the Trump administration. Moreover, the report noted that the vast majority of countries were falling short on their Paris targets, let alone the sort of cuts that might prevent catastrophic warming.

And now we’re living in the world of Covid-19, things have changed radically from that earlier baseline. The New York Times reported overnight that many US cities are putting mitigation projects on hold right now, as they address the immediate health crisis, and try to find a way to cope with plunging revenues. And Reuters has reported concerns from the Japanese environment minister, who says that with a brutal global recession looming, it could put climate change on the backburner right at the time when action has never been more urgent.

The economic downturn will leave countries facing serious choices about what they want to prioritise in their recovery. To go back to a point made by energy economist Michael Liebreich in the interview I did with him recently, some countries could end up making very stupid decisions here, in propping up high emissions industries to protect jobs short-term, rather than investing in cleaner economic growth. In this context, the comments made by climate change minister James Shaw to Radio NZ yesterday are very interesting – he argues that many countries now see intertwined environmental and economic progress as the best way forward, citing “South Korea, the UK, the EU at large, Costa Rica and others” as examples.

5.30am: How courts will work at level three

With the announcement that New Zealand will be at alert level three from next Tuesday, Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann has issued guidelines for how courts will operate.

Where feasible, proceedings will still be conducted remotely – or as remotely as possible depending on the circumstances.

The type of work undertaken by courts, which has been stripped back to just the basics at level four, will continue to expand over time. However, jury trials will not resume until August 1.

Courts will also be open to both the public and accredited media, however attendance limits will be put in place, and priority will be given to those who have court business to attend to.

Court participants will be welcome to wear their own PPE during hearings, and rigorous cleaning standards will continue to apply.

5.15am: Yesterday’s key NZ stories

There were three new cases of Covid-19, and two new deaths

An opinion poll found that 87% of New Zealanders back the government’s response

A $50m rescue package for media was announced, with the bulk of the funding going to broadcasters

A replacement for the usual Anzac Day dawn services was announced: Stand at Dawn, which encourages New Zealanders to stand at the end of their driveway instead

The Australian and NZ prime ministers confirmed they’ve had preliminary talks about opening the trans-Tasman border

Grant Robertson ruled out tax cuts to stimulate the post-Covid economy, but said ‘helicopter money’ (a one-off payment to all New Zealanders) was still an option

Foreign minister Winston Peters announced three Air New Zealand flights to bring New Zealanders home from India over the next week.

Read more on yesterday’s live updates

Keep going!