A drive-through queue in the hours before lockdown. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
A drive-through queue in the hours before lockdown. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

SocietyApril 26, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, April 26: Nine new cases in NZ, McDonalds plans under fire

A drive-through queue in the hours before lockdown. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
A drive-through queue in the hours before lockdown. (Photo by Phil Walter/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.

7.15pm: The day in sum

There were nine new cases in New Zealand, and no new deaths. Of all confirmed and probable cases, 78% are now recovered. The total number of active cases is now 310.

Public health expert Michael Baker suggested air crews should possibly no longer be exempted from the requirement to self-isolate for 14 days after returning to New Zealand.

Finance minister Grant Robertson defended the size of some payouts under the wage subsidy scheme, but criticised a business owner who received $239,000 but has only paid $80,000 to his staff.

The government announced a $107 million fund to provide housing and other wraparound services to vulnerable people during the pandemic.

The Green Party released a proposal for a $1bn package centred around “nature-based jobs” to aid the country’s economic recovery.

National’s finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith laid out his own recovery plan, which unsurprisingly has a stronger focus on the private sector.

The global death toll passed 200,000.

6.45pm: On The Spinoff today

The curve and the kākā: conservationist Paul Ward wonders whether we will listen to the scientists once all this is over

Chris McDowall shares his latest collection of data visualisations of the Covid-19 outbreak in New Zealand

Cecilia Robinson, founder of My Food Bag, writes about how business will rebuild

A different headspace: Six people on being neurodivergent during lockdown

Good news, bad omens: Danyl Mclauchlan on about New Zealand identity during strange times

All 142 biscuit flavours in New Zealand ranked from worst to best by Madeleine Chapman

Fat activism in Aotearoa is having a moment, writes Elizabeth Heritage

6.10pm: McDonalds’ reopening plans draw fire from union

As the country readies itself for level three, many hungry McDonalds fans are looking forward to the prospect of their first Big Macs in almost a month. However there is concern over what reopening the drive-through restaurants will mean for customer-facing staff. According to training materials, staff at drive-through windows will be required to pass product directly to customers at a distance of closer than two metres, while those taking payment need to receive cash directly from customers, if it’s offered. Both requirements are in apparent contravention of level three rules, says Unite Union national director Mike Treen. McDonalds say its plans for reopening follow official government advice.

Earlier today Stuff also reported what will be missing from the menu when McDonald’s restaurants reopen on Tuesday morning. Because of physical distancing restrictions, and resulting staffing reductions, icy treats including shakes, sundaes, McFlurries and frozen Cokes will be off the menu for the time being.

4.00pm: What’s really going on with those anti-lockdown protests in America?

If you’ve been following the US news you’ve probably seen reports of anti-lockdown protests outside state capitols across the country, a movement against the stay-at-home rules that is apparently “spreading” and “gathering momentum“. However what initially appeared to be a collection of spontaneous local protests were in fact promulgated in large part by a single family of pro-gun, anti-abortionist alleged financial scammers, NBC reports.

Writing for The Conversation, political journalist Marc Ambinder notes that these new protests have a lot in common with the early days of the Tea Party, the conservative movement founded during the height of the Global Financial Crisis. As then, these protests appear to be a case of “astroturfing” – concealing the involvement of vested financial and political interests in order to give the impression of an organically occurring grassroots movement.

“The fact that protests happened in different places at different times doesn’t actually mean they’re spreading. When organised by the same small group of political operatives, sequential protests reflect the creators’ skill at mobilising people – not a naturally rising level of frustration that ultimately pushes people to act,” Ambinder writes.

2.15pm: Robertson defends ‘lolly scramble’ wage subsidy scheme

Finance minister Grant Robertson has defended making sizable payments to large, profitable companies under the government’s wage subsidy scheme, in an interview on The Hui this morning. Host Mihingarangi Forbes pointed out that the $66 million payment made to Fletcher Building under the wage scheme was as much as Taranaki iwi had received from their entire Treaty settlement. Robertson said he wasn’t going to defend Fletcher, but that the subsidy was paid to ensure New Zealanders stayed in work during alert level four. “We’ve got to bear in mind that businesses like Fletcher employ thousands and thousands of New Zealanders and the wage subsidy is to… make sure they [don’t] lose their jobs,” he said.

Fletcher Building had a total revenue of $8.3 billion and after-tax earnings of nearly $300 million last year. Forbes contrasted that with New Plymouth hair salon owner Charlotte Ward, who has taken on a supermarket job to keep her business afloat. Robertson said he hoped Ward had accessed the wage subsidy scheme. “All power to her for being prepared to get out there and do that,” he said. “All we wanted to make sure was those thousands of tradies who are reliant on Fletcher also were able to keep feeding their whānau and making sure that they have jobs.”

The Sunday-Star Times today published a story on a company owner who is reportedly refusing to return a profit gained under the government wage subsidy scheme. Black Steel owner Tony Black received a $239,000 subsidy to keep his company afloat during lockdown but told the paper he has only incurred costs of $80,000 so far. “I’m at a loss as to why the government gave away so much money in a lolly scramble,” he said. “I’m going to use it to pay my staff and keep my cashflow up and ensure that my guys have still got a job in five months time.”

1.35pm: The plateau?

Here’s Chris McDowall’s visual account of the latest numbers. His full set of charts will be posted on the site any minute.

1.00pm: Nine new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand

A further nine people in New Zealand have Covid-19, the Ministry of Health has just announced. There are four new confirmed cases and five new probable cases.

It’s the highest number for six days, but the eighth consecutive day of single figures. Importantly, four of the cases are linked to existing clusters, and five to confirmed cases.

There was no media briefing today, with the information arriving a few minutes ahead of the 1pm mark via a ministry press release.

There were 5,966 tests completed yesterday, with a combined total to date of 120,981.

The director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, said in a statement: “Although it’s encouraging to have another day of single digit cases, vigilance remains crucial. As we prepare to move to Alert Level 3 on Tuesday morning, it’s really important not to slacken off the effort.”

He added: “Even though all these new cases are linked to existing community-based cases or clusters, or are a result of overseas travel, nine cases highlights the need for everybody to maintain a high level of vigilance in Level 4 and as we move to Level 3.”

There are 24 further recoveries, meaning the combined total of confirmed and probable cases in New Zealand is now 1,470, with 1,142 reported as recovered. That means 78% of all confirmed and probable cases are now recovered. The total number of active cases is now 310.

There are seven people in hospital, unchanged from yesterday. One person is in the ICU in Middlemore.

There are still 16 significant clusters, again unchanged.

This means the 31 days since lockdown began look like this, in terms of new cases: 78, 85, 83, 63, 76, 58, 61, 89, 71, 82, 89, 67, 54, 50, 29, 44, 29, 18, 19, 17, 20, 15, 8, 13, 9, 9, 5, 6, 3, 5, 5, and today, 9.

12.40pm: Standing by for the latest numbers

A reminder that for the second consecutive day there is no 1pm briefing: no Ashley Bloomfield and Jacinda Ardern at the Beehive. Instead the latest information on the number of new cases, tests, and so forth, will come via a press release from the Ministry of Health. We’ll have all the latest just as soon as it lands.

Meanwhile, while you wait, if you’re yearning for high-level data, we can recommend this deeply controversial biscuit ranking by The Spinoff’s head of food rankings, Madeleine Chapman. Or fill the void with Ashley Bloomfield saying kia ora 44 times.

12.15pm: Ayesha Verrall, contact tracing guru

One of a group of scientists in the broad field of public health that has been thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks is infectious diseases physician Ayesha Verrall, whose expertise on contact tracing has been at the heart of the push to substantially restructure and scale up the mechanisms to identify who has come into contact with infected people.

“On April 10, she had a day to audit New Zealand’s contact tracing system and recommend improvements,” writes Nikki MacDonald for Stuff. “On Easter Saturday, she emailed her report, which found problems with timeliness, incorrect contact details and staff numbers. The system could trace just 185 cases a day.

“As Verrall put it succinctly on Twitter: ‘Our contact tracing capacity is a fire extinguisher, we need a fire engine.’ Then she went back to parenting her six-year-old daughter Laila, whose care she had guiltily abandoned to her partner Alice for four days.

“This week, the Health Ministry accepted her recommendations and promised another $55 million and 300 staff, and her face and voice beamed around the nation as she did 10 media interviews in two days.”

Verrall’s personal and professional background is fascinating. Read the feature by MacDonald (there is no better profile writer in New Zealand) here.

11.35am: Paul Goldsmith lays out post-Covid plan

National’s finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith has laid out his plan for New Zealand’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. He calls for the country to get out of lockdown as soon as possible, and for clear and consistently enforced workplace rules once restrictions are eased. Australia is a good example of a country taking a pragmatic approach, he says.

Those points mostly echo the government’s strategy, but Goldsmith draws a point of difference between National and Labour on how to best position the country to succeed in the post-Covid world. National would emphasise the role of the private sector, while Labour would be inclined to centralise power and planning in Wellington, he argues. “The core engine of growth will always be private sector investment – men, women and their businesses taking on new ventures, rebuilding their businesses, expanding, hiring people – taking mad risks. No committee would have thought Kiwis should get into rockets, or into online accounting systems. The recipe hasn’t changed.”

Paul Goldsmith. Photo / Getty

10.40am: $107 million fund for vulnerable New Zealanders

A $107 million fund has been established to provide housing and other wraparound services to vulnerable people during the Covid-19 pandemic, government has announced. More than 1100 motel units were set aside for people living rough or in accommodation where social distancing wasn’t possible at the start of alert level four. Housing minister Dr Megan Woods says 876 of those units are now occupied. She has announced a further $107.6 million to ensure they will continue to be housed for the longer term.

The new fund will go toward ensuring 1600 motel units are available, with $31 million going to provide other wraparound services. “Many of the people living in the motels have high and complex needs and it’s crucial they get support. This government investment will provide certainty for the people and whānau living in motels and the providers supporting them during this difficult time,” Woods says.

Woods says work is underway on providing more permanent housing once lockdown ends. Radio New Zealand published a detailed report on efforts to move homeless and otherwise vulnerable people into motel accommodation on April 13. It’s here, and worth a read.

10.01am: Baker hints at rethink on isolation for returning air crew

New Zealand moves to a more relaxed version of the lockdown, “alert level three”, at the end of tomorrow, but public health expert Michael Baker has cautioned against getting too relaxed. People should “hold off on the celebrations and the parties for another month at least,” he told RNZ. “To make it all worthwhile, everyone just needs to stay with this pattern of keeping physical distancing while working.”

Baker, a member of the government’s Covid-19 technical advisory group, also suggested there may need to be further thinking on the current exempting of air crew from the requirement to isolate for 14 days after returning to New Zealand. This was “a really critical area”, he said. “We need to look at our border security really intensely.”

Checkpoint has been asking whether returning Air New Zealand crew should continue to be exempt from the government’s quarantine rules for returning travellers. The Bluff wedding cluster, where 97 people were infected with Covid-19, was linked to international travel, and an Air New Zealand employee reportedly attended the reception. Air New Zealand initially refused to provide Checkpoint with the number of its staff who had been infected with Covid-19, though it has since revealed that 30 of its employees contracted the virus.

9.32am: Greens propose $1 billion environmental restoration fund

With the prime minister centrestage in the one story that towers over everything, and most ministers quite literally stuck at home, it has been a difficult time for smaller parties to be visible at all. The Green Party has this morning released a proposal for a $1 billion package centred around “nature-based jobs” to aid the country’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. The scheme would fund iwi, NGOs, and other businesses to take on nature restoration or predator-free projects. Green environment spokeswoman Eugenie Sage says environmental projects create more jobs than spending on “big infrastructure like new motorways”. “Most of the funding will go directly to employing people – the tools needed for wetland restoration such as spades and seedlings are far cheaper than big excavators and asphalt,” she says.

National is also looking to siphon a little attention away from the prime minister. Its building and construction spokesman Andrew Bayly says the construction sector, which employs around 250,000 people, still needs more clarity on how to conduct business during alert level three. Firms haven’t been given guidance on issues like whether building sites that have been sitting vacant for five weeks need to be inspected before reopening, he says. “It’s time for decisive action from MBIE. They must be very clear about the rules for the construction sector and be ready to support building firms as they rebuild our economy.”

9.12am: Covid-19 causing strokes in young people – US reports

Young people are suffering debilitating strokes after contracting even mild cases of Covid-19, according to US reports on new medical evidence. Dr Thomas Oxley, a neurosurgeon at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, and his colleagues have rapidly compiled a report on five patients they’ve treated who suffered significant strokes. All were under 50, with mild or no symptoms of Covid-19. Oxley told CNN and other media it appeared Covid-19 was causing blood to clot in unusual ways.

Three US medical centres are preparing to release studies on the links between strokes and Covid-19 infections, The Washington Post reports. Analysis shows Covid-19 patients are more vulnerable to the most deadly type of stroke – large vessel occlusions, or LVOs, it says. LVOs are more damaging than other strokes because they can destroy parts of the brain responsible for movement, speech and decision-making in one blow.

8.50am: More international praise

If you’re keeping a scrapbook of overseas praise for New Zealand, another significant addition has arrived. The New York Times has dug into the Covid-19 responses from New Zealand and Australia and found they are among the most effective in the world. Dr Peter Collignon, a physician and professor of microbiology at the Australian National University, told the Times the countries have been successful because expert advice has taken precedence over traditional politicking. “This is certainly distinct from the United States,” he told the paper.

The story is written by the Times’ Australian bureau chief Damien Cave, who shows a familiarity with both our geographical advantages in the fight against Covid-19 and distinct national character. “If there are any two countries that could pull off a clear if hermetically sealed victory — offering a model of recovery that elevates competence over ego and restores some confidence in democratic government — it may be these two Pacific neighbors with their sparsely populated islands, history of pragmatism and underdogs’ craving for recognition,” he writes.

7.55am: Death tolls passes 200,000

The death toll from Covid-19 has passed 200,000, with more than a quarter of the casualties coming in the US. Figures compiled by John Hopkins University show 200,698 people had died of Covid-19 as of Saturday (US time). The US death toll was 51,017.

Those figures are likely to significantly underestimate the true cost of the Covid-19 pandemic, with many countries suspected to be underreporting infections and deaths. In the UK, the government has been criticised for only recording deaths as being linked to Covid-19 if they take place in hospitals. Its toll has still surpassed 20,000. Other countries have different methods for reporting deaths. Some record deaths as being linked to Covid-19 when there’s symptoms but no positive test result, while others require a positive test.

Meanwhile, WHO researchers have said there’s no evidence that recovering from Covid-19 confers immunity to a second infection. Global leaders committed to finding a vaccine for the virus at a virtual summit attended by the WHO and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Despite having the most Covid-19 infections and deaths, the US did not take part in the summit. US President Donald Trump didn’t take questions at yesterday’s Covid-19 media briefing after his earlier speculation on the efficacy of using UV light and disinfectant injections to treat Covid-19 was rebuffed by medical experts and producers of cleaning products.

5.00am: WHO on ‘immunity passports’ for Covid-19

The World Health Organisation has issued a briefing note on suggestions that those who are proven via an antibody test to have had Covid-19 might gain an “immunity passport” or “risk-free certificate” that would allow the holder “to travel or to return to work assuming that they are protected against re-infection”. The main problem with the idea? “There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from Covid-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.”

The WHO notes that there is insufficient evidence at this point to determine either way, but: “People who assume that they are immune to a second infection because they have received a positive test result may ignore public health advice. The use of such certificates may therefore increase the risks of continued transmission.”

7.00am: Yesterday’s key New Zealand stories

There were five new cases of Covid-19 reported in New Zealand.

There was also one further death related to Covid-19, the Ministry of Health reported. A woman in her 70s died in Waitakere Hospital, where she had been transferred from CHT St Margarets Hospital and Rest Home.

This brought the total number of Covid-19 cases reported in New Zealand to 1,461, and the total number of Covid-19 related deaths to 18.

Health officials processed 6,777 Covid-19 tests were processed, just short of the record 6,961 tests processed a day earlier.

Earlier, prime minister Jacinda Ardern stood in the driveway of Premier House at dawn, joining thousands of other New Zealanders in unique Anzac Day commemorations.

US president Donald Trump had a much shorter-than-usual press conference, after appearing to suggest people should inject themselves with disinfectant to prevent Covid-19 at his press conference the day before.

Broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi told Newshub Nation the government’s next media priority would involve beefing up its local democracy reporting fund. 

Victoria University of Wellington was criticised for asking students to start paying next week for hall of residence rooms they won’t be allowed to live in until level two.

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield encouraged New Zealanders to thank health and disability workers as part of a new Ministry of Health social media campaign.

Read more on yesterday’s live updates

Keep going!