PM Jacinda Ardern at the press conference announcing the country would move to level four, March 23, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)
PM Jacinda Ardern at the press conference announcing the country would move to level four, March 23, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)

The BulletinMarch 24, 2020

The Bulletin: NZ faces future after extraordinary, historic day

PM Jacinda Ardern at the press conference announcing the country would move to level four, March 23, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)
PM Jacinda Ardern at the press conference announcing the country would move to level four, March 23, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: We’re going to level four by Wednesday night, Robertson massively expands economic package, and political parties put country above politics.

As you might be able to imagine, there’s a bit of news to get through this morning. The effective shutdown of the country (which for clarity, will begin at 11.59pm on Wednesday night) was big enough, but it wasn’t even close to being the only extraordinary event of the day. We’ll start with the biggest stuff and work our way down, and in the interests of clarity I’ll try and keep it relatively brief – for a list of everything that happened yesterday, check out our live updates page.

The alert level system, outlined in yesterday’s Bulletin, was put into almost immediate effect. New Zealand is currently at a level three alert, elevated from the position it was at 24 hours ago. But the crucial part of PM Jacinda Ardern’s address to the nation was when she outlined the timeframe in which the country would move to level four – the effective shutdown level – and that it would last for a minimum of four weeks. It showed that for the last several days (and probably weeks) the government and public service have been working frantically to build up the country’s state of readiness for this moment. We’re now at a point where it can be done, and needs to be done.

Why does it need to be done? I’ll quote the PM’s speech here, because it really is very simple. “If community transmission takes off in New Zealand the number of cases will double every five days. If that happens unchecked, our health system will be inundated, and tens of thousands of New Zealanders will die. There is no easy way to say that – but it is the reality we have seen overseas – and the possibility we must now face here.” The number of cases jumped again yesterday, to 102 in total – and while many of those were still related to international travel, two cases are being treated as community transmission.

So what will the shutdown involve? The most important point to note is that essential services will remain open. That includes supermarkets, which will remain open for however long this lasts. Countdown corporate affairs GM Kiri Hannafin gave an emotional interview to Checkpoint yesterday, in which she urged in the strongest possible terms that people should shop normally. We aren’t going to run out of food, or essential supplies, so long as people don’t panic-buy and hoard. It really is that simple. If you don’t need to go to the supermarket today, wait a day or two for things to calm down a bit, so that the people who really do need to go today can do so. Pharmacies are also on the list of essential services, a full list of which can be found here.

In terms of how people should behave, you must limit your physical contact to only those within your household. That’s a really non-negotiable rule. You must also stay at home, unless it’s absolutely essential for you to leave the house. If you have to walk the dog or just get some fresh air, keep a safe distance from other people. If you have to go to the supermarket, follow all the social distancing protocols in place. If you have to go to the pub, tough luck, because they’ll all be closed. It’s a really difficult thing to get your head around, but we’re all going to have to do it. The cops will be enforcing it too, though commissioner Mike Bush said they’d be “encouraging and educating” the public before arresting them. Honestly, if anything that sounds more threatening, and I’ll definitely be staying at home constable, thanks for checking in.

What about schools? They’re closing too. Jihee Junn has outlined what it means for all sorts of educational facilities, from ECE up to universities, which will be closed from today. There will be exceptions made for the kids of essential workers, such as nurses and paramedics, but they will only last until the end of Wednesday. That doesn’t mean school’s out forever though – online and distance learning will continue for the duration of the shutdown.

To finish this section, things could get quite bad in the coming weeks. For a lot of people, they’re already really bad. But there are several possible scenarios of how things could go from here. If we all do our part, then it’ll be much less horrific than it could be. Time will tell if we’ve taken the right approach, but now that a decision has been made, we have to make it work.

I promised more than one extraordinary event took place yesterday – so here’s another thing that was previously unprecedented in New Zealand. The Reserve Bank has launched a programme of government bond purchases, also known as quantitative easing, reports Interest. It was one of several signs over the course of the day that the economic impacts of Covid-19 are looking worse than was expected this time last week.

Finance minister Grant Robertson also made some big moves, reports the NZ Herald’s. The cap on the wage subsidy scheme for businesses, which was originally $150,000 in total, has now been lifted entirely. The cost of the whole scheme is now expected to be about $9.3 billion, as much larger businesses will be able to apply for the whole 12-week period. A range of other criteria have also been heavily relaxed. Robertson also decreed a rent freeze, and are hoping to be able to extend no-cause evictions over the coming months, in order to protect tenants. Plans are also underway for a ‘business financing guarantee scheme’, and some sort of support for mortgage holders. To give an insight as to just how far Robertson is willing to go in this moment, he didn’t even rule out a Universal Basic Income.

But for context on the economic situation, it was an eye-wateringly terrible day on the NZX50 yesterday, with massive drops for individual companies dragging the average down. Business Desk’s (paywalled) report on the market close is full of words like “panic” and “disarray”, but there is a potential upside. One analyst quoted in the story said that if the shutdown measures are successful, things could start picking up again in a few weeks. The NZX will remain open over the coming period, as it has been designated an essential financial service.

One final extraordinary moment from yesterday – the National Party has offered the PM their full support in moving to Level Four restrictions, saying the country is facing an unprecedented crisis, reports Stuff. Leader Simon Bridges has also instructed all of his MPs to suspend campaign activity, and has offered the services of MPs and staff in providing any support that they can. Bridges also warmly welcomed the removal of the cap on how much businesses can claim from the wage subsidy. The ACT Party has also welcomed the government’s measures, with leader David Seymour saying the government had made the right call, and New Zealanders needed to get behind the efforts. Like I said yesterday, we’re very lucky to have political parties across the spectrum who put the country’s interests above politics at times like these.

A squeeze is being put on non-perishable cargo in the freight industry, reports Todd Niall for Stuff. It means some imports and exports are likely to be delayed, given the loss of commercial airlines as a freight option. Prices are also much higher, because of the shortage of space. It’s an international problem, but one that could affect New Zealand quite seriously given we’re a small market at the end of the world. But just to reiterate an earlier point if anyone’s worried – there is absolutely no danger of New Zealand running out of food.

Many workers and employers alike will be wondering what the level four restrictions mean for employment law. As this Stuff Q&A with employment lawyer Susan Hornsby-Geluk shows, people should bear in mind that the law still applies. An interesting point on it all – employers can force workers to take some of their annual leave over this period, but only if there has been a discussion in advance, and 14 days notice has been given.

There are going to be a lot more questions people want to know the answers to over the next 48 hours, and a lot more news developments. You can keep up over the course of the day with our live updates page – today’s version is here. It includes an international update, including a pair of good news stories out of Germany. Their curve is starting to flatten slightly, possibly because of aggressive lockdown measures. And German chancellor Angela Merkel has tested negative for Covid-19, after earlier fears she may have got it from her doctor who tested positive.

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Right now on The Spinoff: Dame Anne Salmond writes about times New Zealand has been swept up in international events, and how we have risen to the challenge. And Danyl Mclauchlan spoke to Kevin Ward, an urgent primary care physician, who was behind a petition urging the government to shift to the highest alert level.

For a feature today, a reflective piece on the nature of living in interesting times. Writing on The Spinoff, Richard Simpson has captured a mood that has been floating in the ether a lot over the past several weeks. We’ve all got choices to make right now, and not all of them will be easy – but when we look back, we can realise that there have been other periods of human history when other defining choices were made. Here’s an excerpt:

We see common threads. Of trouble arising from miscommunication, from tunnel vision, from political and ideological spats, from people looking after themselves at the expense of others, or the opposite and just as troubling situation of people taking on way too much, burning the candle at both ends.

We see other common threads. Of people helping strangers, whether it is keeping tabs and helping the vulnerable people in our community, by volunteering, by offering their skills and resources and creativity. Of how much power and control we have when we join forces.

And when we look back, we see the truth about how people actually react, instead of how we imagine, and hope, we would.

In sport today, an incredible feat of human endurance. Newshub reports some hearty Frenchman has managed to run a marathon while on lockdown, doing about 6000 laps of his apartment balcony. He said he could have probably gone for a run outside, but if everyone did that, then the point of the lockdown would have been totally defeated. To all of those planning on getting totally jacked over the coming weeks, take this as inspiration.

That’s it for The Bulletin. And just a note for the next four weeks, everyone at The Spinoff will absolutely be carrying on with our duties. If you want to support the work we do, please check out our membership programme.

Keep going!