VIRUS LATEST - THREE DAYS TO LOCKDOWN D-DAY
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* Latest developments and essential information
New Zealand has become an "Orwellian" society under the Covid-19 lockdown rules and the country needs to quickly return to a Parliamentary-led democratic state, says former MP Peter Dunne.
It comes as the Government indicates alert level three - which could be in place by next Thursday - may last only two weeks.
"We have a capacity under legislation for a state of emergency to run for seven days at a time. That empowers the Director of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, in this instance working with the Director General of Health and Commissioner of Police, to basically run the country," Dunne told Newstalk ZB this morning.
"The rest - the Government of the day included - are all bit players. And that, with the momentous decisions we are making and the crisis we are facing, is far too narrow a focus and far too big an imposition on our rights and freedoms.
"This is an unprecedented crisis... you don't resolve it by taking control right back into a tight little group, effectively accountable to nobody, making decisions affecting all of us, and expecting us to meekly fall into line."
Dunne said he never thought he would see a New Zealand where citizens were being encouraged to "snitch" on their fellow Kiwis - and had actively done so over the past four weeks.
He said such a move reminded him of George Orwell's 1984 and what a totalitarian society would look like. "And it's not New Zealand," he said.
Dunne said he would have liked to have seen Parliament sitting during the crisis, so that Government and public service decisions could be questioned and tested in the House.
Winston Churchill's war-time speeches were made to Parliament, not press conferences, Dunne said. The momentous decisions were made by Parliament, not officials.
Parliament's epidemic response committee - chaired by Simon Bridges - was only reviewing decisions, not involved in making them, he added.
"The notion that only a select few know what is going on and can be trusted is a dangerous thing."
He said he could not denigrate the response in terms of the drop in cases, but the imposition on people's lifestyles, freedoms and attitudes to each other would have a long-term cost.
Meanwhile, health officials are delving into the origin of mystery infections and have kick-started targeted community testing in a mad dash to provide the Government with more robust information before it decides whether to lift the lockdown.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday reminded New Zealanders that there will be at least six more days of the level 4 lockdown, and Cabinet will not decide before Monday whether to lift it.
But she released much-anticipated details about life in the "recovery room" of alert level 3, and businesses that have had operations grind to a halt are now scrambling to see if they can comply with the safety requirements.
Those include contactless engagement with customers - such as by phone, computer or car - physical distancing, and keeping tabs on customers for contact-tracing purposes.
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But all bars, cafes, restaurants, libraries, museums and public parks will remain closed, while school attendance, up to and including year 10, will be voluntary.
Meanwhile, the UK will remain in lockdown for "at least" three more weeks as Dominic Raab urged the British public to be patient.
The Foreign Secretary, who is deputising for Boris Johnson while he recovers, said that lifting lockdown measures would risk a second peak with more deaths and a second lockdown.
More than 140,000 people have died from Covid-19 around the world, with more than 13,500 deaths in Britain.
"We've come too far, we've lost too many loved ones," said Raab, adding: "There is light at the end of the tunnel."
Back in New Zealand, Finance Minister Grant Robertson told Hosking that he was as anxious as everyone to get out of level four and start returning to some normality.
He indicated level 3 might last only two weeks.
"We've used blocks of two weeks because that's the way that the virus gestates, and so, two week blocks, four week blocks give us a sense of controlling the virus.
"That's why we said four weeks of level four and similarly we use those kind of blocks because that's what fits with the advice we have about how the virus gestates."
He rejected suggestions Australia had done a better job balancing health impacts and the economy, saying New Zealand's actions had worked well for this country.
"New Zealanders have done a remarkable job of supporting this lockdown... there is still some way to go in completing that job. Clearly we have to keep bringing people with us. It's why we are getting information out there about level 3, before we have even made the decision about moving there."
He also rejected an assertion that the hospitality industry had been consigned to carnage. Eateries could operate under level 3 if they met public health guidelines, particularly in regards to physical distancing and contactless services.
If they could not provide services under the level 3 rules, they could prepare for level 2 where they would be allowed to have dine-in customers again.
Under level 3, the broad principle of "stay home, save lives" will remain, though Ardern suggested that it could be as short as two weeks in the recovery room before shifting to level 2.
"We have the opportunity to do something no other country has achieved - elimination of the virus. But it will continue to need a team of five million behind it," Ardern said.
With three days remaining until lockdown D-Day, efforts to provide Government ministers with as much robust information as possible have also ramped up.
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield revealed yesterday that targeted testing had started in Queenstown - with 300 supermarket workers and shoppers - and more is planned for South Auckland, Waikato and Canterbury.
These regions are considered to be outliers in terms of the testing data; Queenstown, for example, has 6 per cent of Covid-19 cases but accounts for less than 1 per cent of the country's population.
This is a form of surveillance testing, where information about the prevalence of the virus is collected in certain regions or demographics to paint a fuller picture. It could even uncover undetected outbreaks.
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Epidemiologist Sir David Skegg told MPs on Tuesday that it was a vital piece of the puzzle, and, without it, ministers making a decision on Monday risked playing "Russian roulette" with the health of New Zealanders.
The other vital puzzle piece he cited was contact-tracing capacity, and while public health experts have decried a lack of data, the Health Ministry is expected to release an independent audit of its processes soon.
But Bloomfield has previously said that the ministry was already "furiously responding" to the recommendations in the report by infectious diseases expert Dr Ayesha Verrall.
Public health units were now also diving deeper into Covid-19 cases where the origin of the infection is a mystery, which makes them harder to ring-fence and contain.
Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said such cases were of higher concern of triggering an outbreak, assuming that the quarantine at the border was working and clusters were being contained.
"They're the ones from recent weeks where the origin of infection was never resolved. It's critical to have them resolved very rapidly."
Yesterday Bloomfield provided information for the first time on the 23 such cases since March 24: five had overseas exposure, 13 were contacts of a confirmed case, four were "community-acquired" and only one case, which was identified on Wednesday, was still unknown.
"This is a very important part of the information we need now to be able to inform a decision around whether we are in a position to step down from alert level 4," Bloomfield said.
"Contact-tracing around the [unknown] case has taken place, and we have asked for extensive testing of close and casual contacts."
The number of new cases announced yesterday - 15 - continued to follow the declining pattern since April 5, but it was more noteworthy because the number of tests (3661) far exceeded the lull in testing numbers over the Easter break.
The death toll stands at nine, although a post-mortem is underway for an Invercargill man whose death is thought to be coronavirus-related.
The total of confirmed and probable cases is 1401, but the number of recovered cases (770) now far exceeds the number of active cases (622).
There are 12 people in hospital. Three are in ICU, with two in a critical condition.
Baker also welcomed the testing of supermarket workers and shoppers in Queenstown, as well as the wider community testing.
Testing such workers was one of the ways he and other public experts suggested as a way to provide a more accurate picture of the spread of Covid-19.
"A critical line of defence is the surveillance system we've got going now," Baker said.
"People do carry the virus who don't show symptoms. Testing people who are more exposed to give some idea of the circulation of the virus is useful, and it will be interesting to see what it identifies."
Ardern said the measures taken by the Government had put New Zealand in a "rare" position to stamp out the virus, and she pushed back on suggestions that the lockdown had been too severe.
"We should not confuse the success of our actions with overreaction, and there is plenty of proof around the world of the devastating result of responding too late."
She said revealing details of life under alert level 3 was in no way an indication that the lockdown will be lifted from next Thursday.
But looser restrictions at level 3 would likely see half a million more New Zealanders back at work, some of whom are among the 1.5 million employees signed up to the Government's wage subsidy scheme, which has now paid out $9.7b.
People would still need to restrict contact, Ardern said, including staying clear of public parks.
"When it comes to public play equipment, I personally know how hard this is.
"You try taking a two-year-old past some play equipment they can't use. But we just can't risk one piece of equipment being a vector for transmission."
Bloomfield said level 3 required more caution than level 4.
"If anything, we need to be even more vigilant, because everybody will have potentially more contact with others."
Ardern also hinted that level 3 could potentially be eased to level 2 after two weeks.
"The last thing you want to do is move out of level 4 and lose everything. That's why level 3's designed in that way, but it's not designed to be a place we want to spend a long time.
"This is why we call level 3, really, 'the recovery room'. This is where we hold, we
see if we're really well, and whether or not we can keep moving."
If Cabinet decided on Monday to ease the lockdown, Ardern said she would indicate how long alert level 3 might last.
"You will have seen what we've tended to use are the cycles of transmission, so one cycle is two weeks, two cycles is a month. So we'll tend to look in blocks."