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Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Kevin Stent – Pool/Getty Images)
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Kevin Stent – Pool/Getty Images)

SocietyMay 26, 2020

Live updates, May 26: No new cases; Muller goes up against PM at Question Time

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Kevin Stent – Pool/Getty Images)
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Kevin Stent – Pool/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 two – read The Spinoff’s giant explainer about what that means here. For 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.

7.10pm: The day in sum

There were no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand. Five further cases were recorded as recovered, bringing the total number of active cases in the country down to 22.

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said he was confident in the country’s contact tracing abilities ahead of changes to level two restrictions allowing gatherings of up to 100 people from this weekend.

The government announced its Covid-19 vaccine strategy, funded to the tune of $37 million.

Facing criticism for the lack of diversity in their shadow cabinet, new National Party leaders Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye wrongly claimed finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith was Māori, which he then denied.

Todd Muller reconsidered the controversial MAGA hat which has dominated the first few days of his National Party leadership, telling reporters today he has decided not to display it in his new office.

The WHO suspended its trial of the Donald Trump-endorsed hydroxychloroquine after it was linked to increased rates of mortality and serious heart problems among Covid-19 patients.

5.40pm: More tourism job losses

The horror news for the tourism industry just keeps coming with the announcement by Millennium and Copthorne Hotels that it is to cut hundreds of staff. While the exact number of job losses is unclear, chairman Graham McKenzie said the cuts would affect 910 staff, representing around 70% of the company’s workforce. The news came on the same day that major tourism business Tourism Holdings Ltd told the NZSX that it expected to make 140 job cuts, largely to its Waitomo Caves, Kiwi Experience and group support operations.

4.15pm: New National leader goes up against PM, Goldsmith heckled with ‘Ngāti Epsom’ jibe

Question Time in parliament this afternoon saw Todd Muller face off against the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, for the first time since he became National leader on Friday

It was a muted debut, with Muller’s line of questioning focusing on job losses and small business. He asked why businesses weren’t receiving more direct cash support, with Ardern responding by pointing to the government’s relief packages, such as the wage subsidy scheme, which she said were helping businesses stay afloat. 

The quip of the afternoon went to New Zealand First’s Shane Jones, who, when it was National finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith’s turn to ask a question, yelled out “Ngāti Epsom”! It was a reference to this morning’s claim by National deputy leader Nikki Kaye, repeated by Muller, that Goldsmith was Māori. He is not. Goldsmith has run before in the (largely wealthy, largely white) Auckland electorate of Epsom. Jones was made to withdraw and apologise.

3.20pm: NZ’s screen industry kicks back into action

The local screen production sector has returned to action under alert level two, with newly issued ScreenSafe guidelines ensuring the health and safety of all cast and crew. These precautions range from the standard workplace expectations of social distancing to the more industry specific regulations, like the stringent screening of casual employees (such as extras) on set.

During alert level four 75-80% of NZ On Air funded productions came to a halt. Production now has resumed on a range of productions spread wide across the country, from documentaries like Demolition NZ to large-scale dramas like Westside. Notably, Shortland Street started shooting under alert level three, with their own set of guidelines and rules.

“New Zealand’s screen production industry has been hit hard by the impacts of COVID-19, but is emerging strong,” says NZ On Air CEO Cameron Harland. “With New Zealand productions being some of the first in the world to return to work, we’re proud of the resilience our industry has shown in both their efforts to return to work, and their devotion to the health and wellbeing of all cast and crew. Now is a great time for local productions – both local and international markets are going to be hungry for engaging stories,” he continued.

3.00pm: WHO suspends trial of ‘miracle drug’ hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19

A new study published in The Lancet has linked anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine (and chloroquine) to increased rates of mortality and serious heart problems among Covid-19 patients. Following this, the WHO has suspended its trial of the drug, which included 3,500 patients across 17 countries.

The Solidarity Trial, organised by the WHO, randomly assigns patients with hydroxychloroquine or one of three other experimental drugs for treating Covid-19. Only the arm of the trial testing hydroxychloroquine has been suspended.

A month ago, a Brazilian study on the drug’s effects was halted because of the danger to participants. Studies out of China and France have had the same result.

The study in The Lancet analysed data from almost 15,000 patients receiving either hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, or either of the two combined with a macrolide. It compared these patients to just over 81,000 in a control group.

It found that patients treated with the drugs had a death rate of one in four; those in the control group had a death rate of one in 11. Researchers estimated the excess risk that could be attributed to the drugs ranged between 34% and 45%.

Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, said in an online press conference that a review of the trial was prompted by study in The Lancet. “While it was still a reporting of observational data, it came from multiple registries and quite a large number of patients,” she said.

“We decided we should be proactive, err on the side of caution and suspend enrollment temporarily into the hydroxychloroquine arm [of the Solidarity trial].” 

2.45pm: InterCity buses to return

InterCity buses will be back up and running from Thursday, albeit with a limited service, RNZ reports. To begin with only around a third of regular services will run, with some stops unavailable, including those north of Kerikeri, Coromandel, National Park and Ohakune in the North Island, and the West Coast, Mount Cook, Wanaka, Te Anau, Tekapo and Cromwell in the South Island. In 2019, The Spinoff’s Alex Braae described InterCity’s overnight Wellington to Auckland service as being “very reasonable” value.

1.45pm: Today’s data, charted

1.30pm: Prime minister’s press conference marks M. Bovis anniversary

This week marks the two-year anniversary of the government’s decision to eradicate M. Bovis, prime minister Jacinda Ardern said at her press conference this afternoon, and “just like with Covid, going hard and early to beat M. Bovis has paid dividends for us.”

The beef and dairy sectors are the backbone of the country, the prime minister said, and our success in limiting the spread of the disease has enhanced the country’s brand overseas.

Agriculture minister Damien O’Connor said getting rid of M. Bovis was a 10-year project, and over 150,000 cattle had been culled so far. Biosecurity were now “looking harder and finding fewer infected animals”, he said.

Watch the press conference here:


1.05pm: No new cases

There are again no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield has announced.

The combined total of confirmed and probable cases remains at 1,504, with 1,154 of those confirmed and the rest probable.

The total number of recovered cases is now 1,461, meaning there are just 22 active cases remaining in New Zealand.

There are no additional deaths to report and just one person is receiving hospital-level care.

There were 1,841 tests processed by labs yesterday, Bloomfield said, bringing the total number of tests processed to 263,156.

There have now been 405,000 registrations on the NZ Covid Tracer app, an increase of 25,000 since this time yesterday.

Bloomfield encouraged people to register on the app if they hadn’t already, “even if the functionality at this point is still relatively limited”.

He said 15,500 QR posters have been downloaded and displayed at businesses, representing a quarter of “active” businesses, meaning those that people are likely to visit such as hospitality and retail outlets.

On yesterday’s announcement that a move to level one would be considered in four weeks’ time, Bloomfield said he was aware that some people were asking whether we should be aiming to get to level one sooner.

“I think it’s important to keep in perspective that New Zealand is already moving through alert levels and relaxing restrictions more quickly than other countries, including Australia. We’re acutely aware that under alert level two restrictions there are still some constraints and we want to be careful to get the balance right.

“We’re working hard already to lay out the detail of what level one might look like so we can move there as soon as safe to do so.”

On the border control strategy of mandatory managed isolation or quarantine for all arrivals, Bloomfield said the government was “very mindful” of the recent high court ruling that overruled the Ministry of Health and let a man visit his dying father.

“We need to consider all requests for an exemption very carefully and we do this with great care and as quickly as possible,” he said, adding that a number of exemptions had now been granted.

1.00pm: Government announces $37 million vaccine strategy

The government has announced a Covid-19 vaccine strategy, which it says “will enable New Zealand scientists to contribute to global research efforts and explore the potential of vaccine manufacturing capability in New Zealand.”

A release issued this afternoon says $37 million in funding has been allocated to the vaccine strategy. Domestically, $10 million of that will be used to support research in New Zealand, and $5 million has been set aside to support potential manufacturing capability. Internationally, up to $15 million is earmarked for international research collaboration, and a further $7 million in official development assistance will go to the vaccine alliance, Gavi, which distributes vaccines to developing countries.

More information on the Covid-19 vaccine strategy can be found on the MBIE website.

12.45pm: Watch today’s update here

12.15pm: Bloomfield back at 1pm today

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield returns to his usual 1pm slot to present the daily Covid-19 media briefing this afternoon. Stay tuned for the live stream and updates. There haven’t been any new cases announced since Friday, which was also the only new case in the past week.

12.00pm: Muller defends shadow cabinet’s lack of diversity

It’s caucus morning at parliament. Our press gallery reporter Justin Giovannetti has the latest from the new guard at the top of the National Party:

The hallways are buzzing at the Beehive as politicians are back for parliament’s return after a week off and new National leader Todd Muller is preparing for his first crack at the prime minister in question time on Tuesday afternoon.

Muller has faced a difficult first five days as leader.

A number of groups in New Zealand have professed concern with a Make America Great Again baseball cap he has kept in his office in the past. Muller told reporters on Monday afternoon that the cap is a political souvenir from the 2016 election campaign in the US and doesn’t reflect his political views. He didn’t apologise to groups who see it as a symbol of oppression.

Facing concerns that National’s new front bench has only white faces, with no Māori representation in his top 12 picks for shadow cabinet, Muller said that finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith was Māori. “There is significant diversity, gender, ethnicity, including the Māori perspective,” Muller said.

Goldsmith moments later corrected his leader and said that he was not Māori.

Paula Bennett, who is Māori and had been the party’s deputy leader until last Friday when she was rolled with Simon Bridges, burst out in laughter when told that Muller had named Goldsmith as Māori. Bennett is number 13 on the caucus list.

11.45am: MAGA hat to stay in its box

New National Party leader Todd Muller has had a change of heart about his divisive Make America Great hat, telling reporters at parliament this morning that he won’t be unpacking it after moving into his new office. On Saturday Muller defended the hat as merely being part of his collection of political paraphernalia. “Clearly for other people it has a greater personal meaning,” he told reporters this morning. “I respect that and I’m not focused on hats.”

11.00am: Covid benefit opens can of worms around state of welfare in NZ

The government has copped a fair amount of flak after it announced yesterday it would give people newly unemployed as a result of Covid-19 almost double the usual benefit allowance for the first 12 weeks.

“It looks like a two-tier system in which long-term beneficiaries are less important than those who have just lost their job,” writes economist Max Rashbrooke this morning. “But it could, in fact, herald a shift towards a world in which we support everyone better, and manage the biggest risks collectively.”

For existing beneficiaries, the Covid-19 payment would be “life-changing”, writes Eamonn Marra. “When you lose your job your income stops but your bills continue; you have to quickly rework your budget for everything in your life,” he writes. “This 12 week payment gives you a buffer to work out your next moves during a deeply stressful time.”

“Up until now, though, people who lost their jobs were not met with 12 weeks of payments substantially larger than the Jobseekers Allowance. They were instead met with a one to two week stand down period where they received no payment at all. These stand down periods have been suspended due to Covid-19 but will come back in November.”

10.30am: More job losses at Air NZ, Tourism Holdings Limited

Another day, another grim set of headlines about large-scale job losses. An estimated 4,000 jobs are on the line at Air New Zealand as the company prepares to report dramatic financial losses. Meanwhile Tourism Holdings Limited has announced they expect around 140 employees will be affected as they begin a consultation period to “match staff numbers with demand”, and the TAB has confirmed it will cut 230 jobs as a result of the pandemic.

10.00am: Bloomfield confident of contact tracing capabilities

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield is confident in the country’s contact tracing capacity as alert level two restrictions on gatherings are eased this weekend. With gatherings of up to 100 people to be allowed, Bloomfield told RNZ’s Morning Report the goal was to be able to contact everybody within two days in the event of a confirmed case. He stressed the importance of collecting contact details and encouraged people to download the government’s NZ Covid Tracer app. “It’s not too much trouble, but that is the critical thing that will help us trace people quickly,” he said.

9.00am: Elle Hunt on the Dominic Cummings fiasco

Along with much of Britain, Elle Hunt has watched Dominic Cummings’ remorseless press conference overnight (see 7.45am update) with a slack jaw. In a post for The Spinoff this morning, she writes of Boris Johnson’s defence of his chief adviser:

No rap on the knuckles. Not even a blustered apology, as I’d expected. Instead, the suggestion was that Cummings was not only justified in breaking a lockdown imposed to flatten the curve of coronavirus, while showing symptoms – but somehow, to be commended for doing so. Meanwhile, Britons have missed loved ones’ funerals so as to abide by official advice to “stay at home”.

Nearly 37,000 people have died of coronavirus so far in the UK. Even after two months of lockdown, there continue to be roughly 2,500 confirmed cases a day. Yet Johnson’s briefing seemed confirmation of Cummings’ hold over the prime minister – and of the double standards for politicians, and the public.

Read the piece in full here.

8.20am: Why 28 days of no new cases is the next big goal

A modelling study conducted by University of Otago scientists, including now-household names Ayesha Verrall and Michael Baker, found it would take between 27 and 33 days of no new detected cases of Covid-19 for there to be a 95% probability of epidemic extinction in New Zealand. The authors of the study called for the Ministry of Health to provide an official definition of elimination so the public and researchers could monitor progress towards this goal. For more detail, read their blog post, published yesterday, here.

8.00am: Updates from today’s edition of The Bulletin

The government has announced a brand new income support scheme for those who have lost work – but in many ways, it immediately became notable more for what it wasn’t. To deal with the wave in unemployment caused by Covid-19, there will now be a 12-week period of payments of $490 a week, for all those who lost their full time jobs on March 1 or later. The rate will be set at $250 for part-timers, and both will be paid instead of the main unemployment benefit. It’s a massive programme, and is expected to cost about $1.2 bn.

But immediately, some of you with sharp eyes might have spotted what is wrong with this picture. So first, a bit more justification from the government. Stuff reports that social development minister Carmel Sepuloni says it is about creating “breathing space” for the new cohort of unemployed, who may struggle to find a job quickly amid an impending recession. People who lose their jobs might also have particularly high outgoings, and it was suggested by Interest journalist Jenée Tibshraeny on Twitter that the move was necessary to prevent a mass wave of house mortgage defaults – “because our housing stock is (unfortunately) worth about 4 times that of our annual GDP”.

All hell quickly broke loose, because as you might have noticed, these payments are set at about twice as much as the main benefit. In effect, it creates a two-tier welfare system – and some argue that by doing so, it creates a line between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ welfare recipients, in an extremely arbitrary fashion. Let’s not forget that a lot of people were already losing jobs because of Covid-19 before March 1, not to mention the fact that people lose jobs through no fault of their own all the time. As Newsroom reports, it leaves out existing beneficiaries and migrant workers who are doing it tough right now too.

Finance minister Grant Robertson said that while unemployment is difficult at all times, “this is a recognition that this came from nowhere.” For many of those who find themselves in need and eligible, it will be a godsend. Writing on The Spinoff, researcher Max Rashbrooke has argued that it could be a sign of a looming shift in welfare policy, towards “both permanent social insurance and core benefit increases.” That whole piece by the way gives an excellent analysis of the structure of welfare systems, and is well worth reading.

But criticism has also come directly from the government’s own base. Not to put too fine a point on it, but now middle class people are going on the dole, and there is a perception that the government is scrambling to protect them when it previously wouldn’t have done the same for others who became unemployed. As a post on left-wing blog The Standard put it, “the government obviously fully understands the basic inequity and inadequacy of the welfare system or it wouldn’t be bolting this short term second tier onto existing welfare provisions. But I guess their only aim is to mollify the suburbs in these straitened times.” Remember, this is a welfare system that the government’s own working group described as difficult to navigate, and providing insufficient support for people to live off – a point made in this strong opinion piece on Stuff by Susan Edmonds.

And it is causing ructions between Labour and the Greens. Several highly ranked Green candidates, including current MP Julie Anne Genter, tweeted out messages saying that the party believed in raising main benefits, but couldn’t do it without more MPs in parliament. It’s a difficult line for the party to walk, because this episode exposes how little their insistences on welfare have mattered over this term of government. The party’s official twitter account also put out the erroneous claim that they were the only party pushing for higher core benefit payments – Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said her party would seek to double them. A full report on Green Party anger was released this morning by Radio NZ, with an accusation from the Greens that Labour had broken a promise to overhaul the welfare system in their confidence and supply agreement.

Meanwhile, on redundancies, we’re starting to see some awful situations emerge of workers being pitted against each other for scarce jobs. Radio NZ’s Gill Bonnett reports that some of those cases even involve local and migrant workers being basically in competition with each other. Expect to hear more of these sorts of stories in the coming months.

A fairly major reshuffle of the National caucus has been announced, and former minister and leadership contender Amy Adams is back in the fold, reports Stuff. Many of the ranking changes are minor, but some are huge, with key Muller allies getting big jumps, and a few Bridges backers suffering the consequences. There was also a bit of back and forth on the day over the future of Simon Bridges – Muller said in his press conference that Bridges was “considering his future”, and then Bridges immediately texted Newshub to say he had no plans to go anywhere, and would be running again to be the MP for Tauranga.

One issue for National going forward is that there is still very little detail or specificity about what they’d do differently to the government. That was rather brutally exposed in a forensic interview last night by Jack Tame on Q+A in which the only firm policy pledges were those that National has long argued for. While the details were kept deeply vague, Muller pushed the message hard that National would be better able to manage the economic recovery. However, they’re in a bit of danger there, because newly released IPSOS polling reported on by One News shows Labour is now more trusted in that that area than National.

7.45am: Cummings refuses to resign

Boris Johnson’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings still has a job, despite deafening calls for his resignation after it emerged he repeatedly broke lockdown. Cummings, the political strategist once played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a TV movie about the Brexit campaign, held a press conference today to announce that he wasn’t resigning. “I have not offered to resign … I have not considered it,” he said. Explaining why he took an additional side-trip from Durham to his parents’ house at Barnard Castle, Cummings said he was trying to work out if he was fit enough and his eyesight was good enough to drive back to London that week, the Guardian reports. Boris Johnson has been heavily criticised from all corners for failing to sack Cummings.

7.00am: Yesterday’s key stories

There were no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand.

Gatherings of up to 100 people will be allowed from noon this Friday, May 29.

A decision on moving to alert level one will be made no later than June 22.

A temporary support programme will start next month providing $490 a week for full-time workers and $250 for part-time workers who’ve lost their jobs.

National announced its newly reshuffled cabinet following Todd Muller’s appointment as party leader last week.

Stuff CEO Sinead Boucher completed a management buyout of the company while MediaWorks announced it would cut 130 staff.

A 5.7 magnitude earthquake centred 30km northwest of Levin was felt near Wellington. No injuries or structural damage were reported.

Read all the key stories in yesterday’s live updates

Keep going!