Live updates, February 25: No new community Covid-19 cases, but some test results still awaited

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for February 25. All the latest news from New Zealand, updated throughout the day. Reach me at stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

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3.45pm: Inquiry launched into use of rentals for emergency housing

The auditor-general has announced an inquiry into the Ministry of Social Development’s emergency housing grants paid for private rentals in Auckland.

“There have been concerns expressed to us and in the media about the quality of some of the private rentals used as emergency housing and the amounts paid to private landlords and property managers,” the office of the auditor-general said in a statement.

“We have decided to carry out an inquiry to better understand what happened.”

The inquiry will look at the use of private rentals between November 2017 and June last year. During this time, the ministry paid more than $38 million for the use of private rentals.

“We will not make any public comment while our work is under way, but will publish a report once we have completed the inquiry.”

3.20pm: Ex-National MP spent $10k in final days of job

Hamish Walker – the former Clutha-Southland MP outed for leaking Covid-19 patient details – racked up a $10,000 expenses bill in the final days before last year’s election.

The one-term MP was granted special leave from parliament in July, yet the spending occurred between October 1 and December 31. Considering he was no longer an MP after October 17, the spending must have happened in the weeks just before he finished up his tenure.

As per Stuff, $4162 was spent on accommodation in Wellington and $5813 on other travel expenses. During his three months on special leave, Walker would have received about $60,000 in pay – despite not working.

2.20pm: ‘Let’s Get Wellington Moving’ has ‘no credibility’, says NZTA

The plan to ease traffic congestion in the capital – known as “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” has “no public credibility”, according to the chairman of Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, Sir Brian Roche.

A business case for a second Mount Victoria tunnel has also been delayed until “later this year” after proving more complicated than first thought.

The proposal was originally expected to be released early this year.

During a select committee today, the agency also confirmed there was no date for when construction of a second tunnel might begin.

1.35pm: Three new MIQ cases, no change to Auckland community cluster

There is no change to the Auckland February cluster of Covid-19 cases, the Ministry of Health has announced. There are three new cases of in managed isolation – one of which is an historical case.

All 11 cases associated with the Auckland February cluster remain in the Auckland quarantine facility.

Genome testing results now available for Case K has shown it to be the UK variant of the virus and again very closely related to the genome sequence for Cases A and B, the ministry confirmed.

“This provides further reassurance that the cases from the additional household announced on Tuesday have not appeared from elsewhere in the community,” a spokesperson said. “All cases that have been sequenced in this cluster are genomically linked and are connected to the cases at Papatoetoe High School.”

Contact tracing

The ministry provided an update on contact tracing for the recent community cases. Of the 31 close contacts of Case A, all have tested negative for Covid-19 with the exception of Case D.

For this cluster, all the remaining students and staff at the school have been designated as “Casual Plus” contacts of Case A.

“As at 8am this morning there have been 1,525 casual plus contacts identified at Papatoetoe High School. Excluding the three positive cases (Case E, I and J), 1,490 have returned at least one negative test result since February 15,” said the ministry.

“We have asked all these casual plus contacts to have an additional test on or after February 22. So far all results from the additional testing have been negative.

“We continue to work closely with the school to ensure all those in the school community who need to be tested are. Where necessary, this includes visits to students homes to make sure people are getting the support they need to access testing and remain isolated.”

The ministry has also introduced a new category of cases – “close plus”. This category is for individuals who are advised to do the same as a close contact and to also keep their household members at home in isolation until they return a negative day five test.

Close contacts are advised to self isolate for 14 days and be tested on day five and day 12.

In both cases, if the individual close contact or close plus contact develops symptoms then their household contacts should again stay home until the contact is cleared with an additional test.

Of the Kmart Botany contacts, 15 staff members have been classified as “close plus”.

“This number has decreased from that previously reported after further investigation on their contact with the case. All these people have been contacted and are self isolating. We currently have eight negative test results from this group”

The ministry said ‘close plus’ is an existing approach.  “The classification of close plus contact helps provide flexibility in terms of the public health response to public exposure events as well as helping standardise the approach for health services,” the ministry said.

“In essence the close plus contact category is used where the risk of transmission is higher and it means that the contact’s household members are then already in isolation should they subsequently test positive.”

The ministry has been contacted by 1236 people who reported being at the Kmart store at the times of interest. “They have been provided with public health advice. These people have been asked to isolate for 14 days and be tested at day five and day 12 after their exposure to the case. We encourage anyone who has visited the store at the times of interest to contact Healthline. We expect this number to increase.”

Open home case confirmed

The Spinoff reported this afternoon on a case of Covid-19 confirmed to be a tenant at a recent open home. The ministry has revealed that this was the residence of cases I, J and K.

“The viewing lasted half-an-hour and was attended by three people. The agent and three attendees were all contacted by Public Health officials on Tuesday. They have all been tested and are awaiting their results.”

As reported by The Spinoff. the home is not regarded as a location of interest as the identities of everyone present is known.

1.00pm: Stand-by for latest Covid-19 data

There’s no press conference today but we’re expecting the latest Ministry of Health info on Covid-19 to arrive via press release.

As always, we’ll have that for you in full once it drops. It should be here momentarily.

12.25pm: More than 40% of millionaires paying less tax than lowest earners

A report on Stuff has revealed that 42% of wealthy New Zealanders pay less than 10% of their total income in tax – below the lowest income tax rate.

The lowest tax rate in New Zealand is 10.5%, for those earning less than $14,000. Median salary earners – $55,000-$60,000 – pay an effective tax rate of about 16-18%.

Green Party finance spokesperson Julie Anne Genter said it’s wrong. “This is partly because we tax income from work, but we don’t tax wealth. Wealthy individuals get their income from untaxed or lowly taxed sources,” Genter said.

Chlöe Swarbrick, the party’s revenue spokesperson, advocated for a new tax. “The most straight forward solution is to introduce a wealth tax on individuals’ net wealth over $1 million – not including mortgages and other debt. This would only apply to the wealthiest six percent of New Zealanders.”

A wealth tax was knocked back by the Labour government, with Jacinda Ardern pledging not to introduce new taxes while she was in charge.

11.30am: Simon Bridges questions ‘wokester’ police commissioner

National MP Simon Bridges has had the chance to question police commissioner Andrew Coster face-to-face this morning, just days after labelling him a “wokester”.

Coster was appearing before the Justice Select Committee on which Bridges sits, leading to an escalation of the war of words between the pair.

Asked by Bridges whether “police still arrest criminals in New Zealand”, Coster said that the police had been “as focused as it’s ever been” in tackling gang crime.

Earlier today, criminal justice expert Jarrod Gilbert wrote that Bridges’ attack on Coster was cowardly. “Andy Coster isn’t ‘woke’. He’s proven himself to this point to be intelligent and principled. Two qualities Simon Bridges is doing his best to expunge himself of,” said Gilbert.

He also said that Bridges’ claim about a lack of police action on gangs was simply wrong. “It came off the back of the police – on Coster’s instruction – launching an operation to take guns out of the underworld. It is an operation that could easily have come straight out of a National-controlled government.”

National MP Simeon Brown – who is not an expert on gangs nor criminal justice – called Gilbert’s claims “absolute nonsense”.

10.40am: PM pledges to tackle dental problems, extend national fluoridation

Jacinda Ardern has promised to pass a bill that would give water fluoridation powers to District Health Boards and could see fluoridation extended to at least 85% of the country.

The law’s been on hold for nearly four years despite support from across the House, with National throwing its weight behind the proposal as well.

“We didn’t have the support for it in the last government… we’ve got the numbers now and the minister is doing work on it,” Ardern told Newshub.

Ardern appeared to blame former deputy PM Winston Peters for the delay in passing the law – but National’s Shane Reti said that’s not true.

“[It’s] hard to explain why this is taking so long. Why can’t this be delivered – you’ve got two of the main parties agreeing this is important,” he said.

9.50am: Reserve Bank required to consider housing impact when making decisions

The finance minister has directed the Reserve Bank to take account of housing in all its monetary and financial decision-making.

It follows letters sent between Grant Robertson and the Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr in late 2020 as the pair sought to work out how to cool the housing market.

“The Committee retains autonomy over whether and how its decisions take account of potential housing consequences, but it will need to explain regularly how it has sought to assess the impacts on housing outcomes,” Robertson said in a statement.

“The Bank will have to take into account the government’s objective to support more sustainable house prices, including by dampening investor demand for existing housing stock to help improve affordability for first-home buyers,” said Robertson.

This announcement is, Robertson said, just the “first step” as the government considers how to make home ownership more attainable.

Adrian Orr said he “welcomes” the direction the Bank received from the government. “The minister’s direction is in tune with our recent advice to the Government in which we detailed the many influences on house prices, including the actions of the Reserve Bank,” Orr said.

9.10am: Air NZ announces $185m loss

The impact of Covid-19 is being felt no stronger than in sectors that rely on travel, with Air New Zealand announcing a $185 million loss for the second half of last year.

As TVNZ reported, the national carrier also spent $1 billion in cash reserves.

The results compare with almost $200 million in earnings from the same period in 2019.

“While we made significant changes to our business and cost base, and did this more quickly than most airlines, since the outbreak of the pandemic we have still burnt through over $1 billion in our own cash reserves – that’s just huge,” the airline’s CEO Greg Foran said.

“We have been fortunate to receive significant financial assistance from wage subsidies and the Government’s aviation relief package throughout the first half of the financial year, as well as benefiting from lower fuel prices, however these benefits are not expected to extend into the second half of the financial year.”

8.00am: Māori wards bill passes, National promises to overturn

National has unveiled its first policy of the 2023 election: overturning a new law scrapping the public veto on councils setting up Māori wards.

The bill finally passed yesterday afternoon, after the Opposition spent much of the previous day filibustering. Labour had used urgency to get the law change into the House despite just one week of select committee scrutiny.

Local government minister Nanaia Mahuta said there had been a generational shift since the prior law was first introduced in 2002 – a government Mahuta was part of. Had she known the 5% barrier was too low “I never would have voted for it”, she said.

National offered staunch opposition to the bill, speaking on every single one of its 10 clauses. Leader Judith Collins called it “shoddy law making”.

“Jacinda Ardern and Labour did not campaign on this issue at the last election and have not adequately consulted with New Zealanders,” she said in a late night statement.

“Labour only gave the public two days to make submissions. There were 12,506 of them, with 76% opposed to the changes.”

The party’s local government spokesperson Christopher Luxon said: “It’s not for central government to get in the middle of the relationship between councils, iwi and hapū.”

Top stories from The Bulletin

For a lead story today, a confrontation that has been brewing for a while, with several flashpoints along the way. Corrections minister Kelvin Davis has accused activist group People Against Prisons Aotearoa of “basically inciting” the Waikeria prison riot earlier this year, in particular through a pamphlet that advised prisoners unhappy with living conditions to protest, reports Radio NZ. Davis brought it out in parliament under questioning from Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi on the conditions in prison, noting that Waitati himself was quoted in it. Davis told reporters he wasn’t “saying he’d [Waititi] distributed it, but he is quoted in it”. The pamphlet has since been referred to police.

Waititi had been involved in ending the multi-day riot, by going into the prison to secure the surrenders of those who were still holding out. He said he was “flabbergasted” to have been accused by the minister in such a manner, and said Davis was “choosing to deter us from the actual kaupapa which is around the incompetence of Corrections at this particular time to look after our people in prison.”

The incident in turn prompted a partly derisive, and partly angry reaction from activists groups, including PAPA. Their response can be read here. One point that has been made is the argument that it isn’t a subversive document – you can read it in full here. In large part, it advises prisoners of their rights under law, and outlines organising methods to secure those rights. There is also a crossword and Sudoku on the back page.

Activist groups have subsequently accused Davis of using the issue as a smokescreen for conditions within prisons. Justspeak put out a release saying “minister Davis needs to take responsibility for the systemic failures in Corrections facilities across Aotearoa and demonstrate his Government’s commitment to actually making change, rather than attempting to deflect attention from the human rights abuses happening on his watch.” And Amnesty said “the portfolio he [Davis] is responsible for, Corrections, has committed grave human rights violations and broken New Zealand and international law. And this has a human cost.”

An important piece of context for this story: Radio NZ’s Guyon Espiner reports a district court judge has just issued a stinging assessment of conditions in Auckland Women’s Prison, which found degrading and cruel treatment and multiple examples of Corrections breaking its own rules. It stands to reason that if it is happening in one prison, we might well suspect that it is happening in others too.

Read more and subscribe to The Bulletin here




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