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MPs setting up over Zoom for the select committee (Image: Parliament TV)
MPs setting up over Zoom for the select committee (Image: Parliament TV)

The BulletinApril 1, 2020

The Bulletin: Government’s Covid-19 approach faces serious scrutiny

MPs setting up over Zoom for the select committee (Image: Parliament TV)
MPs setting up over Zoom for the select committee (Image: Parliament TV)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Government approach to testing faces serious scrutiny, second Queenstown nurse tests positive, and PM rejects curfew call.

The government’s approach to fighting the Covid-19 outbreak has faced a robust bout of scrutiny, both from MPs and experts. It only took one sitting day for the new Epidemic Response Committee to show how valuable it will be for measuring the plans being put forward, and holding those making the decisions to account.

The key evidence on the day came from Sir David Skegg, an Otago University professor of public health. With the clarification that the government’s overall goal is to eliminate Covid-19, Skegg told the committee that there needed to be a much greater focus on expanding the testing and tracing regime, and compulsory quarantine for everyone coming into the country, reports the NZ Herald. “A lockdown on its own is not enough. It’s like pressing the pause button,” he said. “We all know how costly this lockdown will be in human and economic terms. It’s a terrible waste if we don’t pull out all the stops now to maximise our chance to eliminate Covid-19.”

Skegg’s perspective is that testing has to date been too focused on those with overseas connections, and that previous loosening of the health ministry’s criteria hadn’t reached the clinicians who make the final decisions on whether to test. That view was backed up by Primary Health Organisation clinical board member Dr Garsing Wong, who told Newshub’s Michael Morrah that the criteria should have been widened a long time ago. He also argued that because of previous testing criteria, the actual number of infections is likely higher than the number of confirmed cases.

It should be noted that the overwhelming majority of tests are still coming back negative – a full 97% in fact, even with the tight criteria focusing in on the most likely cases. Director general Dr Ashley Bloomfield also stressed that capacity was being increased all the time, and that capacity concerns weren’t a factor in clinician decisions on whether to order a test. PM Jacinda Ardern confirmed later in the afternoon that testing criteria will be changed so that much more takes place. During the committee meeting, health minister Dr David Clark also pointed out that contact tracing was being scaled up, and the workforce of Healthline has doubled since the start of the year. Cumulatively, you can look at all of that and say the government and public service is being responsive when legitimate concerns are raised.

There will be plenty more work for the committee to get into, as it takes over a large part of parliament’s role during the lockdown period. Among those appearing today will be finance minister Grant Robertson, key figures at MBIE and Treasury, economist Shamubeel Eaqub, and economic development minister Phil Twyford. The latter’s time will likely partly be taken up with discussion of ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects to get underway as an economic stimulus – and on that point, there was an interesting article from the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Hamish Rutherford arguing for some of the opposition’s senior MPs to be given a much bigger role in managing such projects, given the government has a poor record to date on infrastructure delivery.

To finish this section with an aside: I mused a year or so ago about how valuable it would be to have select committee meetings be broadcast as a matter of course. The work of MPs involved in yesterday’s Epidemic Response Committee totally reinforces that opinion. In contrast to the often crass stupidity and pointlessness of Question Time, the committee showed MPs as intelligent people, calling on experts and building up evidence, so that the government might make the best possible decisions. Long may that constructive approach continue.

Just quickly, a message from our editor Toby Manhire:

“Here at The Spinoff, members’ support is more important than ever as the Covid-19 crisis lays waste to large chunks of our commercial work. It’s a tight time for everyone, of course, but if you’re able to, please consider joining Spinoff Members to help us stay afloat and keep producing work by the likes of Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, whose collaborations have had a real impact in New Zealand and around the world.”

A second nurse in Queenstown has tested positive for Covid-19 in Queenstown, reports Crux. It means a further 38 staff members will also be tested, which combined with those who were tested in the first round brings the total up to the entire workforce of the hospital over the past fortnight. The tests are an attempt to understand how the two nurses came to contract the coronavirus, and to rule out community transmission among the staff. Meanwhile, 58 new cases were announced yesterday, which is a lower number than previous individual days – however, that isn’t any cause for relaxation, because of the long lag time that can occur between infection and symptoms. A reminder, you can keep track of the breakdown of cases here.

The PM has rejected a call from the Police Association to implement a nightly curfew on the nation, reports Newshub. She said given the rules already in place, it wasn’t necessary. Those persistently breaking the requirement to stay at home (outside of essential activity) are already being cautioned, arrested and charged. And we as citizens need to keep taking responsibility for staying at home and not putting others at risk – as Dr Siouxsie Wiles writes this morning, it is essential that there is no complacency with staying in our existing bubbles over the coming weeks, because if we do get slack, the consequences could be tragic. I’ll quote here:

“The reality is simple. Everyone who visits another bubble could set off a chain reaction that at best puts our essential workers out of action and at worst puts people’s lives at risk. So please, stay in your bubbles New Zealand.”

The full scale of economic damage breaking over Air NZ has been outlined by their new CEO Greg Foran. Here’s a report on Foran’s admission that revenues will likely be down around 90%, totally wiping out both the hundreds of millions in projected profit, and the cash reserves the airline has set aside for turbulent times. The strategy the airline will follow over the next few years is to survive as a domestic carrier, while keeping a few key international routes open as a supply line to the rest of the world.

By some metrics, air quality has improved a lot in New Zealand over the course of the lockdown. One News has reported on NIWA data from Auckland, which shows an almost unprecedented drop in air pollution at sites alongside major roads – and they’re expecting similar results from Wellington and Christchurch. Climate scientists say there could be lessons from this experience about the sort of societal changes that would mitigate our emissions. I’d perhaps slightly temper going too far with optimism there – after all, while some are skipping the commute to work from home, others are skipping the commute because they’re not able to work at all.

There was rather a lot of news that took place yesterday, too much to fit it all in here. A great way to get across it all would be to go back and read our live blog for yesterday, which covered updates for Easter Trading, community newspapers, relaxation of essential goods laws, case modelling and more. And once you’ve worked through that, we’ve got another live blog for today, to be written by Duncan Greive, Catherine McGregor, Toby Manhire and myself.

For a good news story unrelated to the pandemic, how about this: the past few days have seen plenty of rain. It’s hard to overestimate just how much farmers needed this weather – here’s an article from the Hawke’s Bay Today, which notes that rainfall for March was once again below the monthly average, but also that green shoots were starting to show at the end of it. The summer overall was an exceptionally dry one, with many regions officially going into a state of drought. Speaking of farming (and back to Covid-19 related news again, sorry) Radio NZ reports Fonterra is upbeat about their prospects, given their key market of China is starting to move again after their lockdown.

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Right now on The Spinoff: Press gallery titan Colin James writes about the vast global ramifications Covid-19 could have on politics, and how previous crises show a return to ‘normal’ isn’t necessarily possible. Toby Manhire reports on modelling used by the Ministry of Health to inform the Covid-19 response, which warned of massive loss of life if no action was taken. Emily Writes asks teenagers what support they need to cope with the lockdown. Paul Ward writes about keeping kids connected to the outdoors through the lockdown. Sonya Wilson reviews the hot new suburban eatery ‘Our Place’. We’ve compiled some striking footage of Auckland under lockdown.

And if you’re a fan of The Real Pod, this is a must-listen. Alex, Duncan and Jane wrap a ridiculous season of The Bachelorette, culminating in an apparently awful tell-all episode called After the Final Rose.

For a feature today, a first person account on how the previous testing criteria was being interpreted. Stuff reporter Tom Kitchen has tested positive for Covid-19, along with hundreds of other people. However, it was only on his third attempt to get a test that he was actually given one, despite having symptoms. Here’s an excerpt:

Once there, the clinician told me I didn’t meet the case definition for a test; I hadn’t travelled overseas recently and I wasn’t a close or casual contact of someone with the virus.

I had symptoms, albeit mild. A bad cough had plagued me for five days and I’d just got over a mild fever and headache.

The clinician was following the rules. They had limited swabs and couldn’t waste their time testing people who didn’t need to be tested.

The country’s professional rugby players are being told they’ll have to prepare to find work outside the game once more, reports Newshub’s Ollie Ritchie. It comes amid the cancellation of the Heartland Championship for the year, other domestic rugby looking shaky, and the very real possibility that the All Blacks won’t play a single game over 2020 because of travel restrictions. The players receive 36% of revenue under the current model, and top players are taking a pay cut, but with that revenue plummeting their share going to players will fall a lot.

That’s it for The Bulletin. If you want to support the work we do at The Spinoff, please check out our membership programme.

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