Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Getty Images)
Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Getty Images)

The BulletinApril 21, 2020

The Bulletin: Contact tracing the key to leaving level four

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Getty Images)
Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Contact tracing in focus as NZ prepares to leave lockdown, how businesses should manage level three, and Winston Peters fails in bid to sue National MPs.

The decision is in, and we will be leaving level four – just not until next Monday night. PM Jacinda Ardern made the announcement in a heavily watched speech – if you didn’t catch it live, you can read it back here. It noted that the transmission rate of Covid-19 in New Zealand was exceptionally low on a global scale, with “a relatively low proportion of serious cases and, according to the Oxford University Coronavirus Government Response Tracker, one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.” In other words, Ardern said the lockdown has worked, but a bit more time so that “we lock in our gains”. Once the move to level three is made, the country will be in that stage for at least two weeks.

What prevented a decision to move to level three this week? Perhaps the biggest single factor was concern that the country’s contact tracing regime wasn’t yet up to standard. That’s covered in this Newshub report, which discusses rapid research into the system conducted by Dr Ayesha Verrall. Scaling up is taking place, and improvements are being made, but there were still some big gaps, and she had little confidence that it could contain a serious outbreak. This is a key quote from the story, about staffing in public health units – “these outbreaks are really complex. You can’t manage a rest home outbreak, for example, from a call centre. You have to be there on the ground,” said Dr Verrall.

The delay to the decision has not pleased National leader Simon Bridges, who has accused the government of falling short. One News reports that he argued there had been too many shortcomings over the past month in testing and tracing, and so the sacrifices of lockdown would now last longer. Bridges also looked to Australia, which has had somewhat lighter lockdown protocols in place over the past month. As Radio NZ reports, the extension to the lockdown will be a theme at the Epidemic Response Committee this week, which is chaired by Bridges.

What are the scientists saying? The Science Media Centre has canvassed the views of experts to find out, and in general terms they supported the extension. One idea raised in the collection was going back into lockdown later on – as politically unpalatable as the government might find that, given part of the justification for extension was to avoid going back into lockdown later. For example, associate professor Garry Nixon from the University of Otago said a “careful and gradual approach, based on the best science we have available, is the right one. This needs to be accompanied by a willingness to raise the alert level again if at any point it becomes clear that this is the right thing to do.”

The other major point made by the SMC experts was that for future success, people need to keep track of their movements. Regardless of any app or technological solution, that’s the single biggest thing people can do to ease contact tracing efforts, if needed. “This means we should keep a diary of where we’ve been and who we’ve been with for the foreseeable future. If we ever become infected with Covid-19 or a close contact of someone who has the virus, tracing 80% of all our close contacts within three days is the ‘gold standard’,” said the University of Canterbury’s associate professor Malcolm Campbell. It’d probably be best to get into the habit of doing that now, even if it’s just the weekly visit to the supermarket.

To finish this section, it’s probably worth reiterating a point made by the PM and others, but a point that might have got a bit lost. It’s pretty remarkable that New Zealand is even in this position at all, having taken a big gamble on locking down a month ago. Very few other places around the world can really say they’re close to getting Covid-19 under control. It can’t hurt to take a moment and reflect on that, and feel a bit proud of what we’ve collectively achieved so far.

Level three has been described by a few as “level four with takeaways”, because of the similar social restrictions that will be in place. But quite a few businesses will be allowed to reopen again when we shift down. To cover off what they’ll need to do to open, this piece from Michael Andrew is a very useful read. One of the key points about the move is that workplaces (and everywhere else) are still intended to be as contact-free as possible, so for example a business could hire a new employee, providing the interview was carried out remotely.

A long-running court case taken by deputy PM Winston Peters against senior National Party figures has failed, reports the NZ Herald. In a judgement released by the High Court, it was confirmed that Peters’ pension information was deliberately leaked – however, it could not be established that any of those then-ministers had anything to do with it. The whole saga cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the end. As for the original super overpayment – that was all cleared up and paid back by Peters well before any of this hit the headlines, making it a pretty weak smear if that was the intention of whoever leaked it. Meanwhile, in his capacity as foreign minister, Winston Peters has expressed the NZ government’s concern at the arrest of more than a dozen pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, reports Newshub.

A curious sale of shares by the chief executive of a major New Zealand company: The NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Hamish Rutherford reports Summerset Group CEO Julian Cook sold off about $1.5 million in personally owned stock last week, with the retirement home company facing a decidedly mixed outlook at the moment. As Rutherford reports, it also came not long after the company received millions of dollars under the wage subsidy scheme.

Heavy high tides have given coastal cities cause for concern over the past week. The ODT reports Brighton – just to the south of Dunedin – was lucky to escape serious damage after flooding swept over the sand bars, reaching the local store. And in Wellington, the Dominion Post reports big waves battered the Owhiro Bay coast, with damage to roads, footpaths and several coastal houses.

From our partners: Oil markets are in turmoil, energy demand has been hammered by Covid-19, and economic crises loom all over the world; so why is energy economist Michael Liebreich optimistic? I had a chat with him about the current state of the world, learnt heaps from it, and you can have a read of the interview here.

Yesterday, I added a couple more publications to the list that I financially support with a few bucks a month. Thanks to PressPatron, you can now pay for the journalism of Stuff and the Otago Daily Times, regardless of where in the world you live. This matters a lot, because previously, there was basically no way to show support for these outlets if you didn’t live in a city with a newspaper. The ODT is of course great, but I’d rather talk about the other one here. Over the last few years especially, Stuff has been the most important platform for original reporting and investigative journalism in the country. Some sneer at them as nothing but a clickbait platform, but those people are wrong, and the loss of Stuff’s journalism would be a huge loss to the country. Incidentally, if anyone was wondering what I like to throw my discretionary income at, it’s now up to 10 different NZ publications. Be the change you want to see, and all that.

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Podcast producer Tina Tiller, Dietary Requirements co-hosts Simon Day, Alice Neville and Sophie Gilmour, and Coffee Supreme CEO Al Keating during our Zoom podcast (Alice and Al are not really at cafes, that’s the magic of technology)

Right now on The Spinoff: Clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire writes about the mental health impacts of losing a job, and how to protect yourself if it happens. Iain White writes about the need to rebuild our economy through a focus on the local. Chris McDowall updates the latest Covid-19 case numbers, and you can really see a nice flattened curve going on now. Josie Adams picks out eleven interesting ways the lockdown has changed New Zealand. And the Dietary Requirements podcast is back for the month, talking to the CEO of Coffee Supreme about the devastating impact the lockdown has had on the cafe industry.

For a feature today, the view from a paddock of some of the crunchier details around Federated Farmers’ current relationship with the government. We touched on this briefly in last Friday’s Bulletin, but the gist of it is this – the key industry lobby group basically lost contact with David Parker last year, over allegations that they had leaked confidential information. Dairy farmer Craig, who writes at Elbow Deep Farmer, had some very strong words for the Feds about that. Here’s an excerpt:

In June a Federated Farmers official apologised to the Minister’s Advisor over the leak without accepting any responsibility, the equivalent of a “sorry, but not sorry” letter. The damage had already been done. A policy that will deeply affect farmers has been developed almost entirely without a rural perspective being heard.

The reputational damage to Federated Farmers is immeasurable. They are viewed with suspicion by the Ministry and it’s fairly safe to assume calls to delay any policies will simply be ignored.

The idea that a policy as important as the National Policy Statement on Freshwater could be developed without significant input from the very group who are meant to represent farmers interests is almost ludicrous, yet that’s exactly the situation we find ourselves in.

There’s turmoil going on in the NRL at the moment, with CEO Todd Greenberg out the door after losing the confidence of many leading figures in Australian rugby league. Stuff reports Greenberg’s tenure has come to an early end after a massive falling out with ARLC chairman Peter V’landys, with stalled payments to keep clubs afloat one of the major sticking points. The story suggests it could just be the first of many departures, with an urgent need to slash costs. Personally I think it’s an admirable move by these executives – normally the NRL relies on players screwing up to keep the sport in the news during the offseason, but the suits have really stepped up here.

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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