Covid-19 live updates, May 5: Auckland museum seeking Covid-19 objects; James Hardie to close

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 three – read The Spinoff’s giant explainer about what that means here. For official government advice, see here.

Covid-19 live updates
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, right, talks with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a bilateral meeting following a national remembrance service for the victims of the March 15 mosques terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, Pool)

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3.10pm: Today’s numbers charted and mapped

TOTAL ACTIVE AND RECOVERED CASES, MAY 5. THERE ARE CURRENTLY 164 ACTIVE CASES OF COVID-19 IN NEW ZEALAND. (GRAPH: CHRIS MCDOWALL)

See all of Chris McDowall’s charts, graphics and data visualisations for May 5 here.

3.00pm: Manufacturer James Hardie to close
RNZ reports that the Australian building products company James Hardie is set to close its Penrose manufacturing plant, with potential job losses for 120 people.

Asia Pacific region general manager Conrad Groenewald said that as well as the negative impacts of Covid-19, the company had been underperforming for years, and old facilities and equipment would be expensive to update.

E Tu, the union that will be consulting with staff and management over the next two weeks, told RNZ that the timing was “appalling”.

“These are difficult times … and to hear it the way they did, we were notified by email and through a press release … that they want to close down the plant and basically import the products from Australia.”

James Hardie New Zealand Ltd recently received $1,138,795.20 in wage subsidies for 162 staff.

Read the full story on RNZ

2.25pm: 100 Covid-19 objects wanted
Auckland Museum is on the look out for Covid-19 objects from the public to help tell the story of the pandemic and New Zealand’s lockdown for future generations.

Museum curators Lucy Mackintosh and Nina Finigan say they want things that are particularly personal, or that give different perspectives on the pandemic in Auckland and surrounding areas. “We want to collect objects such as photographs, arts and crafts, posters and signs, journals or diaries as well as things that defined this time such as masks, gloves, hand sanitiser and scrubs.”

To submit items for consideration, fill in the form here and email to covidcollect@aucklandmuseum.com along with any photographs or information on the item’s significance.

1.05pm: Zero new cases today
There are no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand today, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield has announced.

One case that had previously been defined as probable had been redefined as not a case, Bloomfield added, so the overall total of confirmed and probable cases is now 1,486.

1,302 cases have now recovered, which is 88% of all confirmed and probable cases. There are four people in hospital with Covid-19. None are in ICU. There are no additional deaths to report.

Bloomfield said 3,232 tests were completed yesterday, which brings the total to date to 155,928.

There are still 16 significant clusters of Covid-19 around the country, with three now closed. The St Margaret’s rest home cluster has had another five cases linked to it – these are not new cases, Bloomfield said. They had previously been wrongly associated with other clusters.

In the days since New Zealand went into alert level four, the new cases each day have numbered as follows: 78, 85, 83, 63, 76, 58, 61, 89, 71, 82, 89, 67, 54, 50, 29, 44, 29, 18, 19, 17, 20, 15, 8, 13, 9, 9, 5, 6, 3, 5, 5, 9, 5, 3, 2, 3, 3, 6, 2, 0 and today, 0.

“Of course, we must stick to the plan,” Bloomfield said. “The worst thing we can do now is celebrate success early, before the full-time whistle blows, and jeopardise the gains we have made.”

Jacinda Ardern echoed Bloomfield’s sentiments that it’s still too early to celebrate. “My message remains, don’t do anything that snatches our potential victory at this point… Let’s double down this week to maintain this good run of numbers.”

Bloomfield also paid tribute to the country’s midwives as today is World Midwives Day, saying they had delivered around 6,000 babies in lockdown. “There are about 3,200 of these essential frontline workers and they’re undertaking important work across our communities.”

Trans-Tasman talks

The prime minister said the Australian national cabinet meeting she intended this morning is still under way, and a statement about the discussion would be issued after it is completed.

On prospects for an Australia-NZ border reopening, Ardern reiterated that the “trans-Tasman bubble concept would not involve any requirement for quarantine either way”.

“When we feel comfortable and confident that we won’t receive cases from Australia, but equally that we won’t export them, then that will be the time to move,” she said.

Compassionate exemptions

Both Bloomfield and Ardern addressed the issue of exemptions after the high court released a decision yesterday, to overturned a decision by Ministry of Health officials not to let a man in quarantine visit his dying father. The man’s request had been refused three times, even though he fit the description for compassionate leave.

“There is a process for requesting an exemption, including on compassionate grounds. The ministry has to date received 24 such requests,” Bloomfield said. So far all 24 requests have been denied.

“As a result of that judicial review, I’ve asked our team to review similar requests to make sure they followed the correct process and take into account the judges findings.”

He emphasised that the review would be conducted by a separate team from the National Crisis Management Centre.

The prime minister defended the ministry’s strict position on exemptions. “We should give genuine consideration for each of those applications because they would only have been made because of dire circumstances. The reason we put that in place is we didn’t want double grief, we didn’t want people entered into a risky situation for them and their families, but equally we wanted to give them a chance to ask.”

Economic support

Asked about the possibility of the wage subsidy scheme being extended, Ardern said the government was “moving into a phase of really looking at what sector-by-sector support may need to look like depending on the ongoing level of impact”, acknowledging that for sectors like tourism the impact would be especially long-lasting. “At the same time, we also need to encourage innovation,” she added. “We do need adaptation from industries to cope with the new environment.”

More to follow

12.45pm: Today’s briefing
Will New Zealand see a second day in a row with no new cases? Watch the daily media briefing here:

12.30pm: Bridges announces National’s economic recovery plan
Leader of the opposition Simon Bridge has announced the first part of the National Party’s plan for the post-covid economic recovery. This includes a GST cash refund of up to $100,000 for affected businesses and a higher $150,000 threshold for firms to expense new capital investment. “New Zealand has flattened the curve. Our first priority now must be to lift the restrictions that are flattening the economy,” he said. “What we do in the next few months is critical to help businesses survive and save jobs.”

While Bridges commended the steps the government took to contain the virus, he said small business had shouldered a “disproportionate amount of the economic burden”, and billed the plan as a way to get cash flowing to them and incentivise business investment.

“Kiwis have done a great job self-isolating and social distancing to save lives. But with 1000 people a day joining the dole queue, we now need to turn our attention to saving jobs,” he said.

11.45am: Ardern and Bloomfield back for 1pm briefing
The A-team of prime minister Jacinda Ardern and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield will be appearing for the daily media briefing at 1pm today. As always, a live stream and updates will be here on the blog.

10.30am: Education response under the ERC spotlight
Many ECEs are “just hanging in there financially”, the Early Childhood Council’s Peter Reynolds has told the Epidemic Response Committee this morning. Like many small businesses, they were often having to cover additional operational costs at a time when funding was already strained. Reynolds told the committee that communications between the Ministry of Education and the Early Childhood Council had been “frustrating” as they sought more certainty from the government over when and how ECEs could safely operate. He said they would need more than 48 hours notice to plan around the new rules and regulations before the country enters alert level two.

New Zealand Principals Federation president Perry Rush was more complimentary of the ministry’s communications, praising it for its “nimble and responsive” approach to the pandemic. Rush said the Principals Federation had anticipated a 10-20 percent return rate to schools when they reopened under alert level. The actual return rate of 1-2% showed that New Zealanders had taken the prime minister’s message to stay home if possible on board, he said, but also that there was a great deal of fear in the community, and that was something that would need to be addressed as the country moved down the levels.

Rush said two areas of concern he thought needed more attention at the moment were students in a remedial situation for whom one-on-one teaching was especially important, and students who may be living in unstable home environments.

Asked by MP Nikki Kaye if he thought it had been the right call for schools to reopen under alert level three, Rush said he thought it was “a line call”. He said he felt the public health messaging hd been adequate but that the expectations around social distancing in schools would be “really difficult to enforce.” That concern had only been mitigated by the much lower-than-expected return rate of pupils.

Auckland Grammar principal Tim O’Connor disagreed with much of Rush’s praise for how the Ministry of Education had handled the pandemic. From a secondary education perspective, the government’s response to Covid-19 has “been a shambles,” he said. O’Connor bemoaned the lack of educational strategy from the ministry and said that a national pandemic plan for education should have already been in place. He said the voluntary return to schools under level three was more about childcare than education. In response to Nikki Kaye’s line of questioning, he said schools shouldn’t have opened under level three.

Among O’Connor’s many criticisms of the government was that they had sent the school 75% alcohol hand sanitiser, which he said couldn’t be used in the school due to the alcohol content. Auckland Grammar has its own supply of alcohol-free hand sanitiser.

Oropi School principal Andrew King reaffirmed the message of all the submitters before him – that schools need clear communications from the government around alert level guidelines, with as much lead-in time as possible to allow them to plan ahead.

9.55am: Watch the Epidemic Response Committee

9.20am: Epidemic Response Committee talking education
One of the hottest new local webseries of the year, the Epidemic Response Committee returns to Vimeo and New Zealand Parliament’s Facebook page at 10 this morning with a focus on education. We’ll hear from representatives of the Early Childhood Council and New Zealand Principals Federation, principals from schools both big (Auckland Grammar) and not-so-big (Oropi School in Tauranga) and the vice-chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington. We’ll have the live stream and updates here on the blog.

8.50am: Bloomfield defends Waitakere Hospital shifts
Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield spoke to Morning Report’s Kim Hill about the Covid-19 cases from Waitakere Hospital, where nurses had been working over both Covid and non-Covid wards. He explained that he had talked to the chief executive and was informed that staff working on the Covid ward only worked on that ward and only with the patients within it, in one shift. However, these nurses were able to switch between Covid and non-Covid wards shift-by-shift, “on the basis of advice from senior clinical people there, so their infectious diseases specialists and others”.

Bloomfield said training and supervision of the use of PPE for hospital staff was being carried out very carefully, and the use of the same staff over multiple wards was common practice. “There is nothing out of the ordinary with this compared to practices when they are caring for people with a whole range of infectious illnesses, for example on an infectious diseases ward, there could be a number of infectious diseases on the ward but the same staff may well be looking after different people on different days.

The hospital is doing a review on the process to try and understand what has happened in this case, and Bloomfield says this is an opportunity to learn about what hospitals could be doing differently. “We have been and continue to be open to learning, we have to be with this virus.”

8.20am: PM calls for exemption rule review
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern has called for a review of all lockdown exemption applications made on the grounds of “compassion” after a man was granted exemption by the High Court to visit his dying father. Dr Ashley Bloomfield told Kim Hill on RNZ’s Morning Report this morning that this man was the only exemption granted on compassionate grounds, out of 24 similar applications, and there would now be a review of all the other cases.

The High Court judge found there was not enough evidence to show the correct procedure had been undertaken when reviewing the man’s case, and there was no evidence to suggest the review team had been looking at cases individually. But Bloomfield was confident that staff were being “objective and fair” with all exemption cases.

“Their job was to apply the criteria objectively and fairly, and the fairly is important here because they need to be consistent … many New Zealanders will know of people who during the lockdown in alert level four, were unable to either attend funerals or visit dying relatives because we were on a really clear pathway to try and stop the transmission of Covid-19.”

He said the review process will be thorough, but is unsure how many of the applications would no longer be “active” due to the ill person having already passed away.

8.00am: Big businesses dragged for claiming wage subsidy
Former Labour finance minister Sir Roger Douglas has taken a swipe at successful big businesses for claiming the government’s wage subsidy, saying it proved that “there is never someone more socialist than a wealthy capitalist in a time of crisis.” The comments were made in a discussion paper co-authored with University of Auckland professor Robert MacCulloch, which called for better-targeted government spending to deal with the fallout from Covid-19. Instead of giving handouts to big business, the paper argues, the government should be paid directly to employees and targeted to those at risk of losing or who have lost their job.

7.20am: The Bulletin – The prospect of a trans-Tasman travel bubble
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Jacinda Ardern will make a rare appearance by a New Zealand PM at the Australian government’s cabinet meeting this morning. It’s a big moment as the prospect of a trans-Tasman bubble is talked up – basically, that would mean that the New Zealand and Australian borders would be opened to each other, but not to the rest of the world. It is likely to happen before full reopening of the borders takes place, but as Ardern said yesterday, it won’t be a short-term development. However, if it were to go ahead, it would mean that there would be no 14-day quarantine requirements at each end of the journey.

It’s hard to overstate how important that would be for the tourism industry, as it would add millions of potential customers to their market. As Stuff reported yesterday, the ski fields around Queenstown are absolutely desperate for it, because Australians already made up a large proportion of their base. It also follows moves by respective trade ministers to get essential business travel happening again, reports the Financial Times.

But there are still big hurdles, as that story notes. After all, while new case numbers are low right now, the story quotes epidemiology professor Ben Cowling, who said there would be risks of new infections under the proposal – “it is the kind of thing that may be in place for a while and then stopped for a while if numbers [of new infections] were to go up in a particular place,” he said. Consideration would also have to be given to contact tracing in those instances, with the job becoming much harder when another country is added into the mix. Radio NZ spoke to epidemiologist Michael Baker, who raised that as a concern – and also noted that right now, the countries have different goals with the approach being taken, which would probably need to be aligned before any opening took place. And thinking about it practically, even at level two (more on that below) New Zealand would still likely be in a position of essential travel only between regions, let alone going overseas.

From the perspective of many Australians, the meeting will be notable as a clash of different approaches. There are quite a few similarities in how the countries have handled Covid-19, but Australia hasn’t locked down in the same way New Zealand has – happily, they haven’t seen the rampant outbreaks that other countries with looser rules have experienced. But among the Australian right wing, there has still been an opportunity in this to push their point of view that more loosening is needed, for example, Sky News host Chris Kenny said he “just hoped Ardern, as a Labour leader is not another voice for overdone lockdowns, and exaggerated caution.”

Finally, it’s going to be very interesting to see how the relationship between NZ and Australia changes over the coming few years. Even as we hold out for the possibility of the Trans-Tasman bubble, full international travel is much further away. It’s no secret that there has been deep friction between the two countries, most recently when Ardern publicly attacked Australian policy on Scott Morrison’s turf. Perhaps the closeness, while the rest of the world is so far away, will have an effect on both policy, and how the two countries relate to each other.

Just quickly, a message from The Spinoff 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 particularly concerning situation has emerged in Waitakere Hospital. Newshub’s Michael Morrah reports that six people on the elderly ward are now considered close contacts of Covid-19 cases, and being treated as if they were probable cases. It follows three nurses at the hospital testing positive – with the really worrying bit is that they worked on the Covid ward, and then the next day were rostered on to the ward housing the elderly patients. The Waitemata DHB has apologised, and said they’re planning roster changes. Nurses say they had been raising concerns about this sort of situation for weeks. In terms of the wider cluster around the hospital, Newsroom’s Melanie Reid has gone in depth on the uncertain circumstances of transmission.

We’ll wait and see if those potential cases end up getting reported, but in better news, we had a zero day yesterday for the first time in a long time – as in, a day with no new Covid-19 cases or deaths in NZ to report. Here’s a report on the milestone, and what it will mean for the ongoing fight against Covid-19 – as Siouxsie Wiles puts it, we cannot relax yet, because there could still be cases we don’t know about. Warnings were also made at yesterday’s press conferences that people were rushing back out into the world too quickly, with bubble-breaking gatherings still not permitted. It’s worth reiterating that because of the long lag time on Covid cases appearing, the zero day has more to do with the lockdown period than our week at level three.

With all that said, we also got outlines of what level two will look like, if and when we move into it. There’s details of that in the 4.48pm update of yesterday’s live blog – note, these are guidelines that have been issued by the PM’s office, rather than the confirmed rules – they’ll be announced on Thursday

You’d have to hope the country’s contact system tracing has improved a lot, because this story which began in mid-March is shambolic. Radio NZ’s Charlotte Cook has reported the story of a woman who was on a regional flight on 17 March, developed a horrible case of symptoms consistent with coronavirus ten days later, and over a month after the flight was finally contacted by a contact tracer. There had been a confirmed case on her flight – a fact which she researched and discovered for herself.

Criticism has been levelled at the Epidemic Response Committee that little attention was given to Maori health. Radio NZ’s Te Aniwa Hurihanganui reports that over more than a month of sessions, only two Maori organisations have been invited to speak – and not a single iwi representative has so far been invited to speak. As chairman of the committee, National leader Simon Bridges has sole discretion over who to invite – he says Maori MPs have been actively involved in crafting the ERC’s programme. The topics for this week are education on Tuesday, followed by health on Wednesday and sport on Thursday – unless there has been a late change, the number of Maori organisations being invited will not increase. Meanwhile, government minister Peeni Henare has admitted that the response so far for Maori is not yet good enough, reports Te Ao News.

A man recently returned from overseas has been allowed to visit his dying father, after a High Court judge granted him a quarantine exemption. The NZ Herald has reported on the case, which is one of just over a dozen similar incidents in which permission has been granted by the health ministry. However, in this instance the man’s request was initially denied, before the courts expedited it through. Much of the decision has been published in the story, and it gives an insight into the sort of legal questions that are being grappled with around the wider lockdown rules.

One of the really interesting economic aspects of the Covid-19 response so far has been major retailers profiting, while smaller players get heavily squeezed. So it was heartening to read this piece by Stuff’s Paul Mitchell about a new dairy opening up in Dannevirke during the lockdown period, to provide another outlet for essential goods. The owner Neil Sayyed said he was spurred into action by the long lines at the town’s supermarket, and while the dairy is “barely breaking even” right now, he’s more interested in the chance to have a business at the heart of the community. This guy also owns a kebab restaurant, and next time I go through Dannevirke I’m definitely checking it out.

6.45am: US projecting 3,000 deaths per day by June under reopening
The New York Times has obtained a new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) document which projects the impact of reopening the US economy on its outbreak, and shows cases rising from the current rate of around 25,000 per day to around 200,000 per day by the month’s end. (For scale, the worldwide cumulative total of reported cases only surpassed 200,000 around six weeks ago).

It shows just how ineffective the patchwork of lockdowns has been, with the story quoting Trump’s former FDA head Scott Gotlieb, who has become a prominent conservative analyst of the administration’s response. “We expected that we would start seeing more significant declines in new cases and deaths around the nation at this point,” he said. “And we’re just not seeing that.” After projecting a total US death toll as low as 60,000 in recent weeks, a number surpassed on April 28, Trump is now publicly predicting 100,000 deaths. The Times story suggests that his own agencies have no confidence in that number.

Meanwhile, meat processing plants are becoming a major source of outbreaks, with USA Today reporting that bulk foods giant Costco is limiting customers to just three steaks per visit due to shortages. The CDC says that 5% of the US meat processing workforce has already tested positive for the virus, according to Axios. There have also been outbreaks at plants in Australia, where a cluster exists at a plant in Victoria, and Ireland, with a third of workers testing positive at a plant in Tipperary. Tyson Meats, the US’ largest distributor, has warned its supply chains are vulnerable, and purchase limits are spreading throughout US chain retailers.

There are now 3.55m confirmed cases worldwide, with just shy of 250,000 deaths officially attributed to the virus, per Johns Hopkins. The Guardian has a good wrap of major developments, including millions returning to work in Italy, France discovering its first case arrived in late December, Britain recording its lowest daily death toll since late March and Zimbabwe pleading for help to avoid a twin health and economic catastrophe.

6.00am: Yesterday’s key stories
PM Jacinda Ardern announced that details of what alert level two will look like will be revealed on Thursday, and a decision on when the shift will happen is coming next Monday.

A high court ruling allowed a man, who had recently flown in from London, to leave managed isolation to visit his dying father, and Ardern said the government would learn from the judgement.

It was revealed that Ardern will be making an appearance at the Australian national cabinet today, where the possibility of a trans-Tasman bubble will be discussed.

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield announced that for the first time in seven weeks, there were no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand. One probable case was confirmed. There were also no deaths.

Auckland’s Marist College, the site of the country’s second-largest Covid-19 cluster, announced all students and staff were being given the opportunity to be tested for Covid-19 regardless of their symptoms.

Ardern hit back at a Wall Street Journal report that claimed Australia was better positioned for a more swift economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic than New Zealand.

The prime minister was grilled on safety practices at Waitakere Hospital following an outbreak among nurses there. It was also revealed that six elderly patients from non-Covid wards at the hospital are now considered probable cases.

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