Public information on a sign put up in a pharmacy (Radio NZ, Rob Dixon)
Public information on a sign put up in a pharmacy (Radio NZ, Rob Dixon)

The BulletinMarch 23, 2020

The Bulletin: Daily life to change with new Covid-19 alert system

Public information on a sign put up in a pharmacy (Radio NZ, Rob Dixon)
Public information on a sign put up in a pharmacy (Radio NZ, Rob Dixon)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: How the new alert system will work, dozens of new cases announced over weekend, and a great idea from several Wellington hotels. 

How will day to day life change with the new alert system aimed at combating Covid-19? To put it bluntly, it will have to change quite a lot, particularly if those efforts are going to be successful. Here’s a report by Duncan Greive on the new system, and how people should be behaving at each. There is some legal heft behind the system too, and here Otago University professor Andrew Geddis has laid out the legal basis for the new orders.

Right now at level two, people are being told to cancel events, restrict travel around the country to only essential trips, work from home wherever possible, and reduce contact with other people. This from Dr Siouxsie Wiles is also an essential read about how people should be responding – I’ll quote at length:

“Level two is about keeping a safe distance from people outside of our household. You should be aiming to stay two metres apart at all times, but absolutely spending less than 15 minutes in that “close contact” zone. It means no more BBQs, parties, or social events, if you can’t stay one-to-two metres apart from other people. It means as many of us as possible need to be working from home. It also means every business where people can’t work from home needs to do things like stagger shifts and lunch breaks to reduce the amount of contact people have with each other.”

At level two, people are being asked to keep track of everyone they come into contact with. And the elderly and immuno-compromised are being asked to stay at home, to drastically limit the chances that they’ll come into contact with someone carrying the coronavirus. Dr Wiles also noted that the language of these directives uses the word ‘should’ a lot – her view is that “wherever you see the word should, replace it with must. Because it you don’t do the right thing now, we will all regret it in a week.”

At level three, public venues and non-essential businesses will close, as many already have in any case. And level four is basically lockdown – people would be told to stay at home at all times, except for the provision of essential services. The levels may end up being applied either across the country, or on a regional level, but right now are being applied nationwide. Even at level two, you shouldn’t assume public facilities or food outlets will be open, particularly if they involve people having to be in close proximity with each other.

There are many people saying right now that being at level two is too relaxed for the situation. Some of the opinions carry more weight than others. Hayden Donnell has put together an excellent argument about the reckons of non-experts being given too much primacy in the media over the last several weeks, particularly from those who have been successful in a field entirely unrelated to responding to a global pandemic. At the same time, some of those calling for an immediate jump to level four are frontline health workers, reports the NZ Herald. And there are many legitimate questions to be asking of the government’s approach, and whether it is going far enough. For an example of that, I’d point you towards this piece by epidemiologist Sir David Skegg, who wrote on Newsroom that far more transparency is needed about the scientific advice the government is following, particularly on the point about testing and community transmission.

One of the biggest questions right now is around if and when schools will close. While children are much less likely to be badly affected by Covid-19, they can still carry and pass it on – not to mention teachers, who are quite a bit more at risk. As the NZ Herald reported last week, a blanket closure order will only apply if there is nationwide community transmission of Covid-19. There’s a level system in this article as well, and it’s a different level system to the earlier one, but both are fairly easy to follow. As our live updates page reported yesterday, isolated school closures are already taking place at those which have a connection to a confirmed positive test. Because of the criteria set out, mass closures could be announced at quite short notice, and schools are currently scrambling behind the scenes to ensure that distance learning systems are in place.

And that probably illustrates why there hasn’t yet been an immediate jump to level four. If it happens too hard and fast for the public to get their heads around, the risk of panic and systems breaking down rises significantly, with all the accompanying consequences of that. As Newstalk ZB reported on Saturday, PM Jacinda Ardern said the new system “does mean we have to be ready to step up our action if we need to.” The difficult choice facing Cabinet – of whether to continue incremental escalation of measures or rush straight to lockdown – is outlined in an analysis published this morning by Politik. And as Radio NZ reports, the decision will be made with many cabinet ministers dialling in by video-conference, rather than being there in person, in a scene that will be played out at workplaces across the country today.

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The total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in New Zealand now stands at 66, with four additional probable cases. Of the new cases announced on Sunday, all had links to overseas travel, but on Saturday there were several cases in which community transmission could not be ruled out. More than 6000 tests have now been carried out around the country as well, after that process was stepped up last week.

Among those new cases, residents of Ellerslie Gardens rest home in Auckland have been placed in isolation, after a nurse tested positive for Covid-19, reports Radio NZ. The staff member worked two night shifts last week, a week after returning from overseas, and had no symptoms at the time they were working. They are now at home and recovering. Heritage Lifecare Group, who operate the facility, say they’ll be taking additional precautions with staff to prevent further spread.

Here’s a great idea from several Wellington hotels, which could have some real flow-on benefits: Stuff reports 95 rooms across the hotels will be turned into apartments, amid an ongoing rental supply crisis in the city and many people needing to self-isolate, or physically distance themselves. The rooms come fully furnished with a kitchen, aren’t overly pricey compared to the standard cost of renting in the capital, and have more flexible options for the length of time people can stay.

The Defence Force say they are ready to be much more involved in the response to Covid-19, reports Newsroom. Some specialist staff are already working with the government, particularly planners. But they also say they’re willing to take a more ‘on the ground’ type role, similar to the operations carried out in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake. They too will face their own challenges of managing the virus, particularly around physical distancing of personnel.

National’s finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith has urged the government to throw much more money towards immediate business support. In an op-ed published by Stuff, Goldsmith said his party supported the existing wage subsidy scheme, but wanted to see a big rise in the cap for how much each business can receive. He also argued that the biggest issue facing businesses in the coming weeks will be working capital, and wanted to see any government plans in this area fast-tracked.

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Members of Canterbury University volunteer army clean up liquefaction on February 24, 2011. (Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images)

Right now on The Spinoff: Liam Hehir gives a first-person account of how his town Rongotea is organising itself to support those affected by Covid-19, and how any community could do the same.Alice Neville meets some of the boutique alcohol distillers who are switching their machines over to making hand sanitiser. Dr Siouxsie Wiles dismisses the rumours that Covid-19 has gone airborne. Sam Brooks writes about keeping your friends while also keeping a healthy distance from them. Emily Writes covers the unprecedented new difficulties facing parents right now. Earthquake scientist Ursula Cochran writes about the lesson of the Christchurch quakes, and how communities really can come together to rebuild. I report on the struggle for beneficiaries to navigate this new world while also trying to keep themselves and their families safe. Alice Neville (again) has a reminder of how to cook, for those who might need to be doing a bit more than normal at the moment.

And our managing editor Duncan Greive has written about our overall coverage of Covid-19, and how it has already changed The Spinoff. If I can just co-sign one element of it, there is an immense feeling of pride that comes with seeing colleagues rise to this challenge.

For a feature today, a small note of appreciation for our political leaders from all parties, by way of a comparison to a country that has it much worse. We’re very lucky to be governed by people who in a time of crisis basically tend to have the interests of the public at heart, rather than corruptly feathering their own nests. This is in stark contrast to the US, where multiple senators are now facing calls to resign, after getting a private briefing on the threat Covid-19 could pose to the sharemarket, and then selling up so they would avoid big losses. Here’s an excerpt from a CBS News story which shows admirable restraint in sticking to neutral reporting on the matter, and also keeps a straight face in entertaining the possibility that it’s all just a weird coincidence.

There’s no indication that [Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard] Burr had any inside information as he sold the stocks and issued the private warnings. It’s illegal for members of Congress to trade stocks based on information the public doesn’t have that they receive through their positions as lawmakers. Burr was among only three senators who voted against that measure in 2012.

The Associated Press cited a person familiar with the matter as saying the intelligence panel didn’t have any briefings on the pandemic the week when most of the stocks were sold. The person declined to be identified to discuss confidential committee activity. But at the time the panel was being briefed daily about the coronavirus outbreak, the Reuters news service reported.

Did any sport happen over the weekend? The netball was cancelled unfortunately, with the ANZ Premiership in a two-week long state of postponement – one wonders if that will be extended further when the two weeks are up. In other unfortunate sporting news, the Warriors’s NRL game against the Raiders did go ahead, resulting in a grim and error-ridden loss. But perhaps that’s good – after all, a result like that does give a real feeling of normalcy in these turbulent times.

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