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 28, 2020

Live updates, May 28: No new cases, one new death; Peters wants fast-track of trans-Tasman bubble

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 for the sixth day in a row, and the total number of active cases dropped to just eight, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield announced.

The total number of deaths related to Covid-19 rose by one to 22, however, following the death of a woman in her 90s at St Margaret’s rest home in Auckland at the weekend. The woman was part of the St Margaret’s cluster however was regarded as having recovered from Covid-19 at the time of her death.

The government announced a new $91 million relief package for the arts and culture sector.

Winston Peters repeated his call to ignore the experts and fast-track the trans-Tasman bubble.

Health unions urged Worksafe to open an investigation into the Covid-19 outbreak at Waitākere Hospital last month. Worksafe has said it wouldn’t be investigating as the Waitematā District Health Board had already done its own review and changes had been made.

New figures released by Stats NZ showed job numbers fell by 37,500 in April 2020, a record drop.

The government announced a $700 million plan to clean up the country’s waterways.

A study conducted by the University of Otago found the vast majority of those who worked from home during lockdown said it didn’t affect their productivity and they wanted the option to continue working outside the office. Retail groups, however, said the number of office workers still working from home was hurting CBD retailers.

5.20pm: Warnings about NZ website selling dangerous bleach ‘cure’

Bleach products designed to be inhaled or ingested are being sold on a New Zealand website have prompted an angry warning from health experts. “It goes without saying it’s extremely dangerous to consume it. It’s industrial strength bleach,” medical researcher Dr Shaun Holt told RNZ. “There’s not a jot of scientific evidence that it can help anything.” Miracle Mineral Solution, or MMS, is being sold by Ngatea man Roger Blake, a self-styled “bishop” of an American organisation called the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing. Confused? Let Siouxsie Wiles explain:

“The FDA has been trying to stop Americans from drinking MMS for years. They’ve issued warning after warning about the serious and potentially life-threatening side effects of taking it. These include nausea, diarrhoea, and severe dehydration that can lead to death. They’ve also shut down many of the websites selling it.

“Which is why the MMS-peddlers resorted to founding their own church – the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing – complete with their own self-styled clergy. As far as they are concerned, they have the “God-given, unalienable rights to maintain and control their personal health” and consider MMS their sacrament. Interestingly, the church also provides members with a letter of religious exemption from vaccinations and mandatory medications.”

3.15pm: Time to ignore experts and fast-track trans-Tasman bubble, says Peters

Political editor Justin Giovannetti reports from parliament: A trans-Tasman bubble with Australia should be opened faster than the pace advised by experts, according to deputy prime minister Winston Peters. While experts have warned the cabinet not to open the border to Australians before September, Peters said he’d like to see it happen as soon as possible.

“You can have the experts, you can have advisory groups, and then you have the people who have to take responsibility. That’s where government comes in,” said Peters, who subbed-in for prime minister Jacinda Ardern who wasn’t at parliament on Thursday. “You’ve got to make a decision and be accountable for it.”

According to Peters, the government received expert advice early in the Covid-19 crisis to completely close the border and not allow New Zealanders to return home. The advice was ignored and tens of thousands of people came home safely – proof according to Peters, that the experts were wrong.

The deputy prime minister said he’d be comfortable with a staggered approach to the trans-Tasman bubble, opening flights to some parts of Australia immediately. The flights would allow people to enter New Zealand without a mandatory 14-day quarantine. He named Tasmania as a state where the virus is under control and flights should be allowed.

International students should also be permitted to return to New Zealand as soon as possible, said Peters, to help kickstart the economic recovery. The government now needs to focus on the economy, he said, adding that advice from health experts that the government should move slowly is “only so sound as we can pay for the outcome of it”.

3.00pm: Ardern announces arts funding

The government has announced a new $91 million relief package for the arts and culture sector this afternoon. Speaking to reporters at Te Papa in Wellington, the minister for arts, culture and heritage Jacinda Ardern said the sector had been among those hardest hit by Covid-19. The national museum was one of the major recipients of the funding announced today, receiving $18 million to help it survive the loss of revenue as a result of Covid-19. There will also be a $2 million hardship fund set up for other museums around the country. Other recipients of today’s funding package include Creative New Zealand ($25 million) and Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision ($31.8 million).

2.00pm: Today’s data, charted

The claret-coloured part of the graph has almost disappeared completely as New Zealand’s total number of active cases drops into the single digits today.

1.00pm: No new cases

There are no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand today, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield has announced. This is the sixth day in a row with no new cases.

The total number of Covid-19 related deaths has risen to 22, however, after the death of a resident at St Margaret’s rest home at the weekend.

Bloomfield said it was important to note that the patient, 96-year-old Eileen Hunter, “was regarded as having recovered from Covid-19” and that Covid-19 is not recorded as the primary cause of death on her death certificate.

“However after consideration we have decided to include Eileen’s death in our overall tally of Covid-19 related deaths, consistent with our inclusive approach to date so that we have got a good idea of the full impact of this condition on our health and wellbeing in New Zealand. ”

There are now just eight active cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, Bloomfield said, and none of these are in hospital. All eight active cases are in Auckland: five in Waitematā, two in Auckland District, and one in Counties Manukau.

Yesterday laboratories completed 4,255 tests, bringing the overall total of tests completed to 271,690.

There have now been 436,000 registrations for the government’s NZ Covid Tracer app, an increase of 14,000 since yesterday.

12.45pm: Watch today’s media briefing here

12.30pm: Bloomfield to update case numbers

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield will hold his usual 1pm media briefing today to update New Zealand’s Covid-19 numbers. Of particular interest will be any updates from the Ministry of Health’s investigation into the death of a 96-year-old resident of St Margaret’s rest home at the weekend (see 8.15am update). This morning the ministry said they expected to be able to provide an update later today. New Zealand’s Covid-19 death toll currently stands at 21.

12.00pm: Government announces $700 million plan to clean up waterways

The government has just announced a whole lot of new rules and policies to improve New Zealand’s waterways, with the aim of stopping degradation now, and cleaning up rivers over the long term. These new rules will include controls will be put on high-risk farming practices like winter grazing and the use of feedlots, stricter controls will be put on nitrogen pollution and a per-hectare cap placed on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. 

Read Alex Braae’s explainer on The Spinoff

11.30am: Watchdog calls for Air NZ to give refunds

Only six percent of respondents to a survey of people with bookings on cancelled Air New Zealand flights managed to secure refunds from the airline, Consumer NZ says. Meanwhile around 80 percent of the 2,000 customers surveyed have instead had to settle for credits which they didn’t know when or if they would be able to use, said Consumer NZ’s chief executive Jon Duffy. Combined, the 1,700 people surveyed who had received credits had $3.8 million locked up with the airline, at an average of $2,234 each.

Consumer NZ called for Air NZ to “do the right thing” and offer refunds to all who request them. “We’ve heard from a lot of people who really need their money because they’ve lost jobs or income as a result of the fallout from Covid-19. While it’s a tough time to be an airline, it’s also a pretty tough time for many consumers,” Duffy said.

11.15am: Record job losses in April

Job numbers fell by a record 37,500 in April 2020, new data released by Stats NZ today shows. This represents the largest fall in percentage terms and by number since Stats NZ started its filled jobs series in 1999. “With the country in lockdown throughout most of April 2020, the impact of Covis-19 is now being seen,” said economic statistics manager Sue Chapman.

Filled jobs in the primary industries fell 4.3 percent (4,480 jobs). Filled jobs in the goods-producing industries fell 1.0 percent (4,153 jobs) and in the service industries they fell 1.7 percent (29,317 jobs).

Worse is likely still to come, with Treasury having predicted unemployment numbers will peak in September.

10.50am: Bloomfield merch raises $140,000 for Women’s Refuge

A range of merchandise bearing the visage of New Zealand’s director general of health Ashley Bloomfield has now raised $140,000 for Women’s Refuge, Stuff reports. Dunedin-based The Print Room say they’ve now sold over 10,000 tote bags, t-shirts and hoodies of “The Curve Crusher”, with all of the profits going to charity. “We are always grateful to those who fundraise for us, and we are particularly impressed with the creativity behind this initiative,’ said Women’s Refuge chief executive Ang Jury. ”These funds will go a long way towards rebuilding lives of those affected by family violence.”

10.30am: Unions want Worksafe investigation into Waitākere Hospital outbreak

Worksafe’s decision not to investigate the Covid-19 outbreak at Waitākere Hospital has dismayed health unions, RNZ reports. Seven nurses at the hospital tested positive for Covid-19, but Worksafe said it wouldn’t be looking into what went wrong because Waitematā District Health Board had already done its own review and changes had been made. Unions representing doctors, nurses and other hospital workers say that is unacceptable and plan to challenge the decision.

This was “a serious incident” and the DHB’s review was full of gaps, Resident Doctors’ Association national secretary Deborah Powell told RNZ. “We wouldn’t be asking the forestry industry to investigate the forestry industry for forestry deaths. WorkSafe investigates because we need to have the surety that it is independent.”

A spokesperson from Worksafe told RNZ they were satisfied with the outcomes of the Waitākere DHB and the Auckland Regional Public Health Service reports into the outbreak.

9.20am: Retailers want people to return to the office

While research might show office workers are keen on continuing working from home (see 7.45am update), the retail sector is equally keen for them to get back to the office. Wellington’s CBD in particular has been “eerily quiet” during the day as public sector workers stay working from home under alert level two, Wellington Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Milford told RNZ’s Nine to Noon this morning. He said the city’s retailers were suffering as a result of fewer people popping into shops and eating out on their lunch breaks.

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford called on the public sector to “set the example of getting back to work [at the office]” now that lockdown restrictions had eased. He said sales were down as a result of office workers staying at home, and urged the government to do more to encourage consumer spending.

8.30am: Unreported majority of job losses from small businesses

The huge job losses making headlines on a daily basis represent just a fraction of the country’s recent rise in unemployment, suggests a story from Stuff this morning. After crunching the numbers they estimate around 12,000 job losses have made the headlines through redundancies at big employers like Air New Zealand or Fletcher Building, but an extra 53,000 people have signed up for the benefit since the week of March 20. The unreported majority of redundancies would be coming from small businesses, said Infometrics economist Brad Olson, who estimated the figure would be around 80 percent of all job losses. 

“The rapid rise in job losses announced over the last week seems to confirm that a second wave of unemployment is likely to occur in the next few weeks, with the wage subsidy ending, businesses assessing how level 2 is affecting their operations, and as uncertainty continues to squeeze businesses,” he said.

Read the full story on Stuff

8.15am: Ministry of Health investigating possible new Covid-19 death

The family of St Margaret’s rest home resident who died at the weekend say her death was “due to Covid-19”. The 96-year-old was one of the rest home residents moved to Waitākere Hospital in April, but was then transferred back to St Margaret’s when she tested negative for Covid-19, the Herald reports. The Ministry of Health say they are aware of the case and the cause of death is still being investigated. They expected to be able to provide an update later today.

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

Despite a reset of the policy last year, Kiwibuild is still proving to be problematic. A disastrous new story has emerged from One News‘ Benedict Collins, who has reported on a repeatedly delayed apartment development in Wellington, which has left the buyers of more than 40 Kiwibuild properties stuck renting while they wait for the development to be completed. Right now, the delays are being blamed on Covid-19, and it has clearly put a stop to a whole lot of construction. But the project was originally meant to be completed by July, before a succession of delays resulted in it all being pushed out until the middle of 2022.

In this case, the government’s advice to those who want their deposits back is that they should approach the developer directly. But the point made by National’s new housing spokesperson Nicola Willis is pretty clear – this was a government backed scheme, and people put their trust in it as a result. And as Interest reported several weeks ago, the way some of these developments are set up puts them on shakier ground if house prices really start falling in earnest, so we could see more of these examples emerge.

In some ways it is fortunate that the original target of 100,000 houses over 10 years was scrapped. Because as Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan noted in an archly written check-up on the policy, at the current rate of completion it would take about 436 years to reach the target. It is also clear that the government has done a better job on social housing, completing just over 3000 in two different categories across this term. However, with the pledge in this year’s budget to double the number of social houses being built, the question has to be asked – are people who need those homes going to be left high and dry too?

Meanwhile, commercial property and subdivision lending has dried up, amid fears of a wider coronavirus crunch. The story from the NZ Herald (paywalled) should sound the alarm for anyone looking for financing for a big development – though existing projects currently underway don’t seem to have been hit too hard yet. And the long term effects of it all could end up filtering down through the economy in ways that will affect everyone – for example, a financing crunch after the GFC in 2008 cut down the number of homes being built, and is partly responsible for the housing crisis we have today.

Calls have burst out for changes in both the border restrictions and the current alert level. I’m bundling these two topics together here, because they both reflect the same impulse – the opinion that strict measures to fight Covid-19 have gone on for long enough, or that there are ways to further reopen the country. For example, yesterday’s NZ Herald front page carried a call from Auckland mayor Phil Goff for a quarantine process to be developed for international students, who provide a boost worth billions to the city’s economy. It comes at the same time as the news that film industry types have been allowed in to get cracking on the Avatar movies, and questions are being raised about what the criteria for defining what “significant economic value” is, reports Radio NZ.

On the question of a trans-Tasman bubble, conversations have continued between various levels of the two governments, reports the Guardian. A plan for this is likely to be presented next week, and could be in place by September. Of course, there are a lot of hurdles here. For example, some interstate travel in Australia is still banned, let alone opening up to another country. The contract tracing systems being used don’t necessarily yet align between the two countries. And – quite understandably – a lot of people will be wary of any opening in the border so soon after the sacrifices of lockdown.

We also got a sign yesterday that these sorts of questions are being thrashed out around the cabinet table. In an unusual move, both the PM and deputy PM Winston Peters talked openly yesterday about disagreements over the trans-Tasman bubble and a move to level one. Peters told Newstalk ZB that both were taking far too long, and appeared to pitch for votes at the upcoming election for NZ First to have more influence around the Labour-led cabinet table. Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva analysed the episode as a frantic attempt by a coalition partner to create some political differentiation with Labour.

Meanwhile in possibly related news, a new story has dropped in the long running saga over the NZ First Foundation. Radio NZ’s Guyon Espiner and Kate Newton have revealed thousands of dollars worth of donations to the Foundation ended up being spent for the benefit of several people with close connections to Winston Peters. At the heart of it all is a company called QComms, which “appears to have acted as an intermediary between the foundation and the New Zealand First party, handling the party’s electronic communications.” The Serious Fraud Office is yet to announce whether or not charges will be laid in relation to their investigation into the foundation.

If you’ve got any interest at all in earthquake strengthening for buildings, this long-read from the NZ Herald’s Georgina Campbell is a must-read. It concerns the earthquake safety standards that are currently being developed, and bounces off the damage done to Statistics House, and the long term closure of Wellington’s central library following the Kaikoura earthquake. The standards have huge implications for the rest of Wellington City, and a whole lot of other places at risk of serious earthquakes.

A bill has been introduced that would allow the government to issue takedown notices and create internet filters, if the chief censor deems it necessary, reports Marc Daalder for Newsroom. Currently, the government does not have those powers, which created problems in the aftermath of the March 15 attack, with some reprobate hosting sites refusing to take down the video. Terrorism, extremist material and child exploitation is the main focus of this legislation. It would also shore up the powers the government has to force overseas websites to take material down, provided there was an agreement between New Zealand and the host country. However, Internet NZ has concerns about the filtering aspects of the proposed law, in part because of the potential for overreach.

7.45am: Study shows most want to keep working from home

A University of Otago study of people who worked from home during lockdown shows the vast majority are keen to keep it that way at least some of the time post-lockdown. 73% of those surveyed found it as or more productive than working at the office, while 89 percent of the study’s 2,595 respondents said they wanted to be able to work from home at least some of the time post-lockdown. Not having to make the daily commute was seen as the biggest advantage of working from home.

The study’s authors urged employers and organisations to consider the benefits of working from home. “Let’s make sure that worker commitment to their organisation and to their work during the lockdown is rewarded by listening to how employees can work effectively in the future. Let’s recreate the norm,” said Dr Paula O’Kane.

7.00am: Yesterday’s key stories

The PM said the Trans-Tasman Safe Border Group would present a blueprint to the New Zealand and Australian governments on how a trans-Tasman bubble could operate in early June.

The director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, announced there were no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand for the fifth day in a row, and no one was in hospital with the virus either.

Looser border restrictions were under the spotlight, with existing exemptions for workers on big-ticket projects and proposed exemptions for students discussed.

National MP Judith Collins sparked a new controversy when she said she was “sick of being demonised for my ethnicity”

The Ministry of Education and NZEI Te Riu Roa announced a settlement to a pay equity claim by teacher aides dating back to 2016

A Spinoff-commissioned survey found widespread failure to comply with level two hospitality rules.

Deputy prime minister Winston Peters said in an interview on Newstalk ZB that New Zealand had been in lockdown for “far too long” and needed to be at level one now, with a trans-Tasman bubble already operating.

An RNZ investigation revealed more spending by the New Zealand First Foundation, namely $130,000 on a company run by the personal lawyer and close friend of Winston Peters.

A survey by the Commission for Financial Capability found 34% of households were in financial difficulty and 40% at risk of tipping into hardship.

The results of a survey measuring the reputation of 54 public sector agencies suggested the Covid crisis was inspiring positive feelings about government-controlled organisations of all kinds.

The Epidemic Response Committee was wound up.

Small business minister Stuart Nash announced almost $1 billion in interest-free loans had been paid out to small and medium-sized businesses since the scheme launched on May 12.

Read all the key stories in yesterday’s live updates

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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