VIRUS LATEST
* The number of global cases passes 2.5 million - with 175,000 deaths
* Five new cases in New Zealand, bringing the total number of cases to 1445; active cases fall to 426
* A woman in her 70s became the 13th coronavirus fatality in NZ
* 'Ratbags and renegades': Police Minister slams Mongrel Mob over illegal roadblocks
* Latest developments and essential information


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made light of her former high school taking exception to the Government plan to have children return to classrooms next week.

"Mr Inger," smiled Ardern, when asked about principal John Inger's newsletter comments, in which he warns of the "potential disaster" of sending children back to the school once level 4 lifts next week.

He says some parents might be sending children back to school simply because they are a "pain in the neck" at home - and the Government was passing on child-minding duties to teachers.

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Ardern said today she couldn't help but think Inger might have had her in mind, as an ex-student, when both her parents would have been classed as essential workers - her father was a police officer and her mother worked at the school.

Turning serious, she said she disagreed with Inger's comments.

In the three-page newsletter obtained by the Herald, Inger warned: "Children can contract Covid-19 and pass it on when asymptomatic, and they can die."

And while the school would try to maintain social distancing rules for children, this could not be guaranteed, he said.

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The comments come as the Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield says new outbreaks in schools are unlikely due to lack of community transmission.

Bloomfield has also said children have lower infection rates and are not as contagious but Inger said "this represents the current thinking aimed at assuring people rather than hard facts".

"Young people all over the world have been dying from Covid - they are just less likely to die than those of us who are adults, so do not think that your child could not die if they became infected," said Inger.

He said it was a "surprise" and a "concern" when Ardern announced some students would be able to return to school under alert level 3.

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He said around 30 of the school's staff, or people in their bubbles, would be at "high risk" if children returned.

"As things currently stand, it seems to me that Government wants to pass on to teachers all around the country the responsibility of child-minding, in our case Years 9 and 10
students, so that more parents can go back to their workplaces.

"This ignores the potential disaster that this could result in, with our schools possibly becoming incubators for the virus.

"The students who might return to school during level 3 will most likely be the children of essential workers, and apparently also those whose parents want to send their children back to school for some reason that they do not have to explain to their school, perhaps because their children are a 'pain in the neck' at home, although there could well of course be some other good reasons to do so.

"In the former case, these students are likely to be those who are most likely to bring
Covid-19 into our school because their parents are 'on the frontline' every day and so are more likely to be exposed to the virus and infect their children when they return to their bubble."

Inger said it was his "strong recommendation" to keep children at home. He believed they were being well served by online learning.

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"I can tell you that if I still had my children at school, and for those of my Senior Leadership Team who still have their children at school, we would certainly not entertain the idea of putting them at risk by sending them back to school at this time."

Ardern attended Morrinsville College and the school's 1998 yearbook famously wrote that she was the most likely student to one day be Prime Minister.

Inger also wrote: "We have yet to hear how the ministry expects bus drivers to ensure that our bus students stay two metres apart on their buses. Nor do we know if buses will be able to run as normal, as many of the Greenline Motors drivers are aged over 70 and so are very much at risk and will be required to remain at home."

The Government has been moving to allay fears about fresh Covid-19 outbreaks when schools reopen next week by saying there is very little chance of anyone with the virus being on school grounds.

That was because community transmission was all but snuffed out, which Bloomfield said was further peace of mind on the back of evidence that children were not strong vectors of transmission.

Last night the Health Ministry released a report saying that the limited health benefits of closing education institutions were outweighed by the severe impacts on health, education, economic and social inequities.

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Some early childhood learning centres and many teachers are opposing the decision to open schools and ECEs up to Year 10 inclusive after the country moves to alert level 3 from Tuesday.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said he was unlikely to force education centres to open if they didn't want to, but he said teachers should "do their bit" when asked whether they could choose to stay home.

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It comes as New Zealand's coronavirus death toll rose to 13 after the death of a woman in her 70s with an underlying health condition.

She was one of six residents of St Margaret's Hospital and Rest Home in Te Atatu who had tested positive and been transferred to Waitakere Hospital on April 17.

Yesterday there were only five new cases of Covid-19, the lowest in over a month.

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With 1445 cases and 1006 people recovered, the number of active cases fell to 426.

There were 12 people in hospital including three people in ICU - but none were in a critical state.

Half of the 16 significant clusters had not reported any new cases in the past week.

Bloomfield said that educators should take heart from the signs that community transmission appeared to be all but quashed.

"There's increasingly encouraging information that the likelihood of someone with Covid-19 going through the school gate is very, very low in the first place," he said.

He added that if a case popped up, close contacts should be easy to trace due to the relatively small "in-school bubbles".

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It remains unclear how many students and children will turn up when schools and ECEs open after a teachers-only day on Tuesday, but the Government has told parents to keep their children at home where possible.

Morrinsville College principal John Inger said that the Government appeared to be asking teachers to be child-minders, and parents could drop them at school just because they were being a "pain in the neck".

"This ignores the potential disaster that this could result in, with our schools possibly becoming incubators for the virus," Inger wrote in his newsletter, obtained by the Herald.

"And young people all over the world have been dying from Covid - they are just less likely to die than those of us who are adults, so do not think that your child could not die if they became infected."

Many ECE centres have talked about defying the Government and staying closed, while some teachers say they are not prepared to return to work and risk the health of their families.

Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds has called for centres to remain closed until alert level 2, which is supported by a petition with more than 35,000 signatures.

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Hipkins said he understood teachers' and parents' anxiety, but he was confident that reopening under alert level 3 could be done safely.

That was despite conceding that maintaining physical distance in ECE centres with children under 5 was not possible.

"They are going to come into contact with each other. They are going to need to be picked up now and then by an adult."

The risks were mitigated by people staying home if unwell, keeping children in the same small groups, and maintaining good hygiene practices, he said.

But Hipkins was open to ECE centres staying closed until alert level 2.

"We're not being too heavy-handed in this. Obviously I do want early learning services to open if they can.

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"I'm not going to set a hard and fast rule around that."

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Last night the Health Ministry released a report about how the closure of schools affected the spread of Covid-19.

"Recently emerging evidence suggests closure of education institutions has a limited role in reducing Covid-19 morbidity and mortality," the report said.

"Best case scenario modelling, which may not apply to New Zealand [because it was mostly based on the UK experience], suggests it may reduce Covid-19 by 2 to 4 per cent."

But closures have "profound and enduring impacts on health, educational, economic and social inequities".

The ministry also pointed to a paper by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee from April 6 that said children were less likely than adults to be infected or have severe illness.

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It pointed to data from Europe that children under 10 made up 1 per cent of cases, while those aged between 10 and 19 made up 4 per cent. It concluded that school closures were not an effective or proportionate public health measure.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins says he doesn't want to be 'heavy-handed' and prevent any concerned school from deciding not to open under alert level 3. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Education Minister Chris Hipkins says he doesn't want to be 'heavy-handed' and prevent any concerned school from deciding not to open under alert level 3. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Bloomfield added that a World Health Organisation report on China couldn't find an instance of a child passing Covid-19 to an adult.

"This seems to be the pattern found in other countries."

Epidemiologists and academics have questioned these findings, with some adding that children are usually strong transmitters of other respiratory viruses.

A paper published by Johns Hopkins University on April 17 said more data was needed.

"Without more conclusive evidence, it is difficult to quantify the role of children
in propagating Covid-19 to other students, their family members, teachers, and school
staff.

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"Furthermore, schools and childcare facilities are staffed by adults, some of whom
may be at risk of severe illness. These considerations weigh against reopening."

Bloomfield also defended the Health Ministry's management of personal protective gear, which will be subject of an independent review from the Auditor-General.

Frontline workers have consistently raised issues about access to PPE, despite repeated reassurances from the Government that there was plenty of supplies to go around.

Bloomfield has acknowledged some distribution problems, and the ministry was now nationalising the process, starting with masks.

He added that any time he was made aware of PPE issues, he has contacted the relevant DHB chief.

"If any issues arise, they are looked into. That doesn't mean that on any one day a DHB can distribute all the PPE a provider thinks it needs on that day.

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"I'm very open to scrutiny and review of what we have done, and any feedback on how that could be done better."

PPE issues are likely to be canvassed at the Epidemic Response Committee today.

Yesterday the committee grilled Government Ministers about the business losses from extending the lockdown by five days.

National Party leader Simon Bridges, who chairs the committee, said that no answers were provided about how many businesses would fall over because of the extension.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said further help for businesses was being looked into.

He added that the wage subsidy scheme had paid out $10.21 billion to 1.65 million workers.

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The committee was put in place because Parliament was adjourned for the lockdown, and it is likely to continue in some form after Parliament resumes in limited capacity on Tuesday.

Ministers will be present to be scrutinised during Question Time and the Government will need to pass some Covid-related legislation, but far fewer MPs will attend in order to comply with physical distancing rules.

Sitting hours are expected to vary and the Government's normal legislative programme will remain on hold, said Hipkins, who is Leader of the House.