Live updates, January 25: Northland Covid case confirmed as South African strain; Australian travel bubble suspended

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for January 25, keeping you up to date with the latest local and international news. Reach me on stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

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7pm: The day in sum

There were no new community Covid-19 cases linked to the Northland woman who tested positive over the weekend.

Genome sequencing confirmed the woman had contracted the South African strain of the virus. It is believed she was infected while in managed isolation.

Quarantine-free travel for New Zealanders to Australia has been suspended for the next 72 hours.

Australia has approved the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine with the first jabs set to be administered from next month.

6.50pm: Australia halts travel bubble with NZ

The Australian government has announced it’s suspending its quarantine-free travel bubble for New Zealanders for the next 72 hours. ABC News reports that travellers coming into Australia during this period will now have to go into mandatory hotel quarantine.

Those who arrived on or since January 14 are also being asked to get a Covid-19 test and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.

“This will be done out of an abundance of caution whilst more is learnt about the event and the case,” said Australian health minister Greg Hunt. “The changes come into effect, as I say, immediately.”

3.30pm: Opposition calls for ‘urgent review’ of managed isolation

National’s Covid-19 response spokesperson wants an “urgent review” of our managed isolation facilities, following the revelation a woman contracted the virus from a fellow returnee.

The 56-year-old Northland woman tested positive for the virus over the weekend and is believed to have caught it during her stay in isolation at the Auckland Pullman Hotel.

In a statement, National’s Chris Bishop said the review should focus on mingling between those staying in managed isolation.

“News that the South African variant of Covid-19 has made it into the community is very worrying, as is the fact that the infected person caught it in managed isolation,” said Bishop.

“National has been concerned for some time about how MIQ facilities are being run, particularly for high risk arrivals. Anecdotal evidence we have heard from people in MIQ about how they are being managed has been extremely concerning.”

Bishop said we should adopt a “risk-based approach” in our MIQ facilities, segmenting arrivals depending on where they have come from. Those from high risk areas like the US should be placed in their own dedicated hotel, he said.

“Eliminating shared space in high risk hotels until the first negative test result should also be considered.”

2.30pm: Australia approves Pfizer vaccine; first jabs set for February

Australia is set to start vaccinating its citizens with the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine from next month, after giving provisional approval today.

As 1News reported, the Therapeutic Goods Administration approved the vaccine after it met strict standards around safety, quality and efficacy.

A priority group of Australians will receive the jab as soon as it arrives in the country, with widespread distribution to follow.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, it’s not expected that a vaccine rollout will start until the second quarter of the year for health workers and some at risk patients. Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said more information on our vaccine strategy and a timeline will be revealed at tomorrow’s post-cabinet press conference.

1.00pm: No new Covid-19 cases linked to Northland woman; case confirmed to be South African strain

Updated

There are no new community Covid-19 cases linked to the Northland woman who tested positive over the weekend.

Genome sequencing completed overnight has confirmed the 56-year-old had contracted the South African strain of the virus. It’s likely she contracted it from a fellow returnee in managed isolation.

Both the woman and the other returnee occupied rooms on the same floor of the Pullman Hotel and officials are confident the infection was a direct one, said Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins.

The person from whom the Northland case likely contracted the virus tested positive on day three, which coincided with the new case’s second to last day at the facility, Ashley Bloomfield clarified.

The minister called it “encouraging” that neither the Northland woman’s husband nor hairdresser have tested positive for the virus.

The release of people due to complete their isolation at the Pullman today has been delayed, announced Hipkins. There are 46 people affected by the decision, and an update will be provided later this afternoon. They will receive an extra test.

Of the 253 returnees who have left the Pullman between January 9 and January 24, 172 have been contacted as of 8am this morning. All these returnees are asked to isolate. Of the 220 staff who work at the Pullman, 114 have already been tested this week. The remainder will be tested today.

An investigation of procedures in our MIQ facilities is being carried out to see what can be learned from this incident, said Hipkins.

15 close contacts of Northland case identified

Contact tracing on the Northland case has identified 15 close contacts, Ashley Bloomfield revealed. Thirteen of them are in two retail settings and it’s not clear which of them served the woman who has tested positive.

Bloomfield clarified that while it is possible the South African variant is more transmissible than the original Covid-19 strain, the evidence is not as clear cut as it is for the UK strain. However, Bloomfield confirmed the South African variant is not any more deadly.

There has been a spike in people turning on bluetooth since the new case was made public. Bloomfield said 200,000 people turned on the bluetooth function on their Covid Tracer app yesterday.

On the nearly 30 locations of interest being published last night, Bloomfield said not all the business owners were able to be contacted so the decision was made to go ahead and publish the list. 162 push notifications were sent to people who had been to those locations, said Bloomfield.

Bloomfield asked people wanting to be tested in Northland to allow casual contacts to be tested first. Nearly a thousand people had been tested across the Auckland region by 11am this morning. Regardless, there were just 2,678 tests carried out yesterday – well below the government’s expectations from earlier in the pandemic.

Asked about Waitangi events in Northland occurring next weekend, Hipkins said he is optimistic that they will be able to go ahead and that there will still be a central government presence.

Six new MIQ cases; Hipkins shuts down online misinformation

Hipkins reiterated the risks of sharing unverified information, mentioning Facebook infographics purporting to announce a lockdown commencing today. He asked people to refrain from sharing misinformation.

It followed misinformation from earlier this year being spread online alleging a lockdown would commence on January 15.

Meanwhile, Bloomfield announced that there are six new cases of Covid-19 today from managed isolation – these are unrelated to the Northland case.

12.45pm: Hipkins, Bloomfield reveal latest Northland Covid-19 details

Chris Hipkins and Ashley Bloomfield are about to front today’s Covid-19 press conference where they will reveal the latest information about the new Northland case.

We’ll have all the latest details here from 1pm and you can also tune in live.

Watch below: 

12.30pm: Air NZ extends mask mandate to all international routes

Our national airline has announced that all international travellers will be required to wear face masks from tomorrow.

Currently, the rule is imposed on just some international routes along with all domestic trips.

“As Covid-19 cases around the world continue to rise, particularly with new variant strains, we’ve put this requirement in place to further ensure the safety of our customers, aircrew and broader New Zealand,”Air New Zealand chief operational integrity and safety officer David Morgan told the Herald.

“Our customers are already required by law to wear masks inflight to a number of our destinations, so extending this mandate to the remainder of our network provides a further safeguard against any potential spread of the virus. To date our customers have been overwhelmingly supportive of the requirement to wear masks and we thank them for their ongoing cooperation.”

12.20pm: Covid-19, one year ago

Twitter account @YearCovid is taking a daily look at the world 12 months ago, to see how the planet was handling the burgeoning pandemic.

On January 24 2020, an LA Times headline concluded that we should not “panic” about the “coronavirus from China”. At this stage, just 31 people had died from the virus.

11.25am: Extra testing centres opened, queues reported

Community testing facilities have been established in the upper North Island following the discovery of a new Covid-19 case in Northland.

In addition to GP testing, anyone with Covid symptoms can get a free test at a community centre in Helensville or Mangawhai in Auckland and at a range of locations across Northland.

If you’re unsure whether you should get a test, call your doctor, or reach out to Healthline on 0800 358 5453.

Meanwhile, reports this morning suggest people are facing long queues at the emergency testing centres. Newshub is reporting people waiting up to one hour in Helensville while the Herald had photos showing traffic jams in Whangārei.

11.00am: 1pm Covid-19 press conference confirmed

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins will be joining Ashley Bloomfield for a 1pm press conference, in order to provide an update on the positive Northland case.

The absence of the prime minister indicates there may not be any drastic adjustments to our Covid-19 response, although Hipkins has previously said it could be 48 hours before any lockdown decision is made.

We’ll have the livestream and all the news right here from 1pm.

9.55am: ‘Hundreds’ of Northland workers expected to skip work

The Northland Chamber of Commerce is expecting “hundreds” of workers in Northland will be skipping work today following news of a Covid-19 case in the region.

The 56-year-old woman at the heart of the new virus scare visited about 30 locations around the region before testing positive over the weekend. She had left managed isolation in Auckland on January 13.

One Northland store owner – South Head General Store’s Aaron Watson – told RNZ the news that the Covid-19 case visited his store was devastating.

“We don’t know what to do, we’re shattered, absolutely shattered… We’ll just have to try and get through this.”

He said he has not been contacted by health officials, and only found out after a friend saw the store’s name on the Ministry of Health website.

9.00am: New Covid-19 case – what happens next?

Genomic sequencing is currently underway to determine whether the new Northland Covid-19 case was contracted in managed isolation, from the border, or – most worryingly – in the community.

It could be up to 48 hours before it’s known whether a lockdown is needed in Northland or if any changes to our alert levels will be implemented.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said testing of close and casual contacts is ongoing and anyone who visited a location of interest is asked to self-isolate and get a test.

At this stage, it’s unlikely we’ll get more information before the standard 1pm update.

7.40am: Two close contacts of new Covid case test negative

The husband of the new Northland case of Covid-19 has tested negative for the virus, along with the woman’s hairdresser.

The 56-year-old woman tested positive almost 10 days after being released from managed isolation in Auckland on January 13, suggesting she may have caught the virus during her stay at the Pullman Hotel.

Along with the woman’s husband and hairdresser, four other close contacts were tested yesterday but the results are not yet known.

“Everyone wants answers, everybody reaches their own conclusions and starts hypothecating about what might have happened but we do have to wait for another 24 to 48 hours to draw some conclusions,” Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins told Newstalk ZB when questioned on whether a lockdown was possible.

“The testing results from the close contacts and those who are coming forward because they were in the same place at the same time, the test results from that group will very much inform what happens next.”

The woman visited an extensive list of locations around the lower Northland region before testing positive, including shops in Whangārei and Mangawhai.

It’s not yet known whether the new case is one of the UK or South African strains of Covid-19, although Hipkins said the Ministry of Health is treating it as though it is. Those strains spread easier than the original variant of the virus.

A note from me

Welcome back to a new year of live updates, I hope you’ve missed me. As if perfectly (and unfortunately) timed, Covid-19 has returned to the local news cycle just in time for the official return of The Bulletin and live updates. As always, we’ll have all the latest right across The Spinoff.

So, what can you expect from live updates in 2021? Last year may have been the busiest year for news on record, but 2021 still promises to have its fair share of big stories: Covid-19, a new US president and a majority Labour government, to name a few. I’ll also be trialling a few regular features this year, including taking a closer look at the stories making headlines outside of the major centres.

As always, if you have any ideas, news tips or just want to say hi please send me an email – I’d love to hear from you.

Top stories from The Bulletin

Ministers and health officials were keeping their options open yesterday afternoon after a new case in the community was announced. The phrasing there – case in the community – is because the person who tested positive also went through managed isolation, and returned negative tests there. Covid minister Chris Hipkins said it was still too soon to speculate on whether there will now be another change in alert levels, for what would be the first time since they last moved in October 2020. More of yesterday’s press conference can be found in our emergency convened live updates.

The big concern is that the positive case – a 56 year old woman – has been travelling across Northland with her husband. She scanned everywhere she went (and had bluetooth on, which makes things easier) so now the process of contacting those who were also there at the time is underway. Details are being added to the locations of interest page, with that list being updated in real time – there was a bit of a delay yesterday afternoon so affected businesses could be contacted. The pair really made the most of their trip around the North, and about 30 places were visited.

Genome testing is underway to identify the strain, which could give some indication as to how serious the situation is. For a reminder of what genome sequencing is (if you’re struggling to remember all the terminology from last time) read this. The current working assumption is that it is one of the more highly transmissible strains – the thinking being that it’s better to overreact than otherwise. As professor Michael Baker said on RNZ this morning, that meant the response would need to be stepped up in urgency, with everything happening faster than previous efforts. She travelled through both London and Singapore.

Mass testing is being called for by experts. And it’ll be happening across Northland – Radio NZ’s news bulletin this morning reported that locations would be opening across the region, as well as in Auckland. For those who might need one, the Northland DHB has details of where and when they’ll be open, and Auckland locations can be found here.

Regardless of what the alert level does, scanning in everywhere will help a lot from here. If there are further cases of community transmission announced, then it will give contact tracers much more data to work with. And everything else – testing and self-isolating if you’re sick, masks on, washing hands – is all stuff that everyone has done before. For those who have been in Northland over the last ten days, take extra care. If you’ve got a bit slack on it all, now would be a good time to start again. Welcome back to the news for 2021, picking up right from where it left off.

Read more and subscribe to The Bulletin here




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