Live updates, January 26: Covid-19 vaccine could be approved next week; mass rollout by mid-year

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for January 26, keeping you up to date with the latest local and international news. Reach me on stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

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7.00pm: The day in sum

The Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine could be given the green light as soon as next Wednesday, Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins announced.

Fifteen people identified as close contacts of the Northland woman who has tested positive for Covid-19 returned negative tests.

Two new cases of Covid-19 were reported in managed isolation.

National Party leader Judith Collins made her state of the nation speech in Auckland, calling for emergency housing legislation.

The article of impeachment against former US president Donald Trump was officially brought to the senate.

3.00pm: Covid-19 vaccine could be approved next week

The Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine could be given the green light as soon as next Wednesday, the prime minister and Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins have just announced.

“Medicines regulator Medsafe will seek advice and recommendations from the Medicines Assessment Advisory Committee (MAAC) next Tuesday, about the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine,” Jacinda Ardern said in a statement.

“The Ministerial expert advisory committee will review Medsafe’s benefit-risk assessment of the pharmaceutical company’s data and, depending on feedback, Medsafe may be able to grant provisional approval as soon as the following day.”

If the approval does come next week, the rollout will be allowed to start when the vaccine arrives in New Zealand, Ardern said. “However, if Medsafe decides next week that some additional assurances are required before it grants approval, I accept their decision and am satisfied that it’s the right decision on behalf of all of us,” Chris Hipkins added.

The government has come under fire from National over the delay in having the vaccine approved and distributed, especially in light of the current Northland case.

“Our first focus will be vaccinating our border and managed isolation and quarantine workforce and their close contacts. Once the vaccine arrives in New Zealand, we expect to be able to complete vaccinating this group within two to three weeks,” said Ardern.

The first vaccines are expected to arrive in New Zealand by the end of the first quarter, Ardern said, and we have broadly similar timing expectations as Australia.

“That will be the start of New Zealand’s largest ever vaccination campaign. And that will take some time and the most important thing is when we finish not when we start.  However we do intend to get our front line staff vaccinated as soon as possible. Doing so will add another layer to our border defences.”

Ardern said the vaccination campaign will move progressively through priority groups. “We hope to start vaccinating the wider population mid-year.”

Borders are likely to be closed for much of this year, Ardern said. “For travel to restart we either need one of two things – either confidence that being vaccinated means you won’t pass Covid on to others, and we don’t know that yet, or we need enough of our population to be vaccinated and protected so that people can safely re-enter New Zealand. Both possibilities will take time.”

Travel bubbles with Australia and the Pacific will still be pursued, she said, but the rest of the world represents too great a risk. “What we will need to establish is a way that we can have that arrangement, but we won’t see disruption from events that may happen from time to time,” Ardern said, citing the fact that the recent Northland case led to a temporary halt to quarantine-free travel into Australia.

Ardern said she expressed disappointment to Australian prime minister Scott Morrison over the decision to pause the one-way travel bubble. “I … conveyed the confidence we have in our systems,” she said.

“I also acknowledged that if we are to enter into a trans-Tasman bubble, we will need to be able to give people confidence that we won’t see closures at the borders that happen at very short notice over incidents that we believe can be well managed domestically.”

She added: “I shared my view that this was a situation that was well under control.”

Ardern said she hasn’t ruled out a state-by-state two-way trans-Tasman bubble in the first quarter of this year, but it was looking “increasingly difficult” at a country-wide level.

Asked about how the Northland woman contracted Covid-19, Hipkins said while the circumstances were still unknown, the possibility that it was via the air conditioning was looking to be one of the least likely scenarios. It was more likely to have been via a surface or from the pair, whose rooms were “more or less” opposite each other, being in the same space within a short period of time.

2.55pm: PM to provide Covid update, discuss vaccine plan

Jacinda Ardern is set to front today’s post cabinet news conference where she will discuss the latest Covid-19 numbers along with the upcoming vaccine rollout. It’s also expected that the decision by Australia to temporarily pop the quarantine-free travel bubble will be on the agenda.

Watch below:

2.30pm: What’s happening in… Southland

Something I’m acutely aware of is the focus of the media on news events in Auckland and Wellington. That’s why, in 2021, The Spinoff live updates will be (virtually) travelling through the regions, exploring what local news is on offer. 

Today, I’m dipping my toes into the icy cold waters of the deep south (it’s actually hotter than Auckland in Invercargill today, but that’s beside the point).

Here are some of the happenings in Southland:

A man has been blacklisted by Air New Zealand after joking about having bombs in his bag. As the Southland Times reported, the 58-year-old was asked if he had any checked bags before allegedly replying: “Yeah, the bags over there. The ones with the bombs in them”. He appeared in court today but is yet to enter a plea.

Reports from Stewart Island suggest a lack of overseas travellers isn’t impacting on local tourism. Several businesses spoken to by Stuff claim the start of 2021 has been just as busy as before the pandemic hit. Stewart Island Backpackers co-manager Michaela Joy told the outlet that the island’s busy season started about three months early last year, in September, even without international tourists.

Meanwhile, Newstalk ZB presenter Marcus Lush has been exploring Invercargill’s public transport today, in his bid to win a spot on the local council. He told The Spinoff it’s a tropical 26 degrees in the town today – and he’s not coping. “If this continues I might have to move further south,” he said. “I am spending today campaigning to win a seat in the council by election. Today’s focus is public transport. I am spending all day riding the busses of Invercargill, to see if the system is working. I also am hoping to talk to other passengers to see what issues they have with the council.”

1.35pm: No further Covid-19 spread in Northland; one contact still awaiting test result

Nobody tested in relation to the Northland case of Covid-19 has tested positive, the Ministry of Health has confirmed.

Of the 16 people identified as potential close contacts, 15 people have returned negative tests, including a household contact of the case. An additional close contact is awaiting their test result.

A total of 157 staff from the managed isolation facility at Pullman Hotel have been tested, along with 192 guests currently in the facility. Of those, 30 still have test results to come, and all others have returned negative results.

Contact tracing staff are following up with 357 people who departed the managed isolation facility between January 9 and 24. Of that number, 325 have been contacted, are isolation and have been or are being tested. The remaining former guests are being followed up today.

The ministry said 187 people received a push notification as a result of having scanned into one of the 31 locations of interest. At this time, 154 people have been identified as “casual plus” contacts. A casual or casual plus contact is someone who has had only limited exposure to a confirmed case, usually by being in the same location of interest either at the same time or soon after a confirmed case. These people are being tested and are isolating until they receive their result.

The source investigation into how the Northland case was infected continued today at the managed isolation facility. This included reviewing CCTV footage at the facility and looking at whether the infection may have occurred from person-to-person or surface transmission, or airborne transmission, including possibly the ventilation system.

Two new cases in managed isolation

While there are no new community cases, two people have tested positive in managed isolation – both connected to international travel.

One person tested positive from day zero/routine testing after arriving in Auckland from Japan. The other arrived from Portugal via the UAE and Malaysia.

More than 1500 community tests; surge in Covid Tracer app use

Over 1500 people were tested at community testing centres around the Northland region yesterday, the Ministry of Health said.

The rate of testing per 1,000 people was greater for Māori than any other ethnicity in Northland.

There is capacity to test everyone, the ministry said, but people who were not at a location of interest at the specified times, and who do not have symptoms, do not require a test. Anyone who was at a locations of interest at the times stated needs to isolate and get a test, said the ministry.

If you have symptoms but have not been to a location of interest stay home and call Healthline for advice.

The Covid Tracer app now has 2,496,000 registered users with more than 20,000 people registering with the app between 1pm yesterday and 10am this morning.

An additional 693,903 post scans have been recorded in the same period, bringing the total scans to 160,090,202.

1.25pm: Still waiting on latest Covid-19 numbers

We’re still waiting on the latest Covid-19 data from the Ministry of Health. We’ll have it here, in full, when it eventually lands in my inbox.

In the meantime, below, you can read:

  • Details from Judith Collins’ state of the nation address;
  • The latest on the impending impeachment trial of Donald Trump; and
  • What we know about the testing of close contacts of Northland’s Covid case.

1.10pm: Collins says National would support emergency housing legislation – based on its own plan

While we wait for today’s Covid-19 numbers…

Political editor Justin Giovannetti reports from Judith Collins’ 2021 state of the nation address:

Judith Collins wants to work with the government to get more housing built, the National leader said in her state of the nation speech today, but only if the government follows her party’s plan.

Speaking in Auckland, Collins delivered a speech that both reached across the aisle of parliament and promised cooperation, while reverting to her party’s main campaign points from last year.

“If we make poor choices now our kids will pay for Covid-19 multiple times over,” Collins told the crowd.

She criticised the government for taking on too much debt for rebuilding from Covid-19, while not doing enough to build the economy. Better spending but less spending. More affordability for workers, but no to planned hikes to the minimum wage and sick leave.

The highlight of her speech was an appeal to the government to introduce urgent temporary legislation to allow for immediate home building. She said National would support a law that would rezone council land, create 30 years’ worth of housing supply and suspend the appeals process.

National’s emergency legislation would then need to be followed by a complete rewriting of the resource management act, a favourite target of Collins.

The housing response proposed by Collins today follows her party’s housing policy from the last campaign. The government’s response to the housing crisis is expected in the budget later this year.

Judith Collins’ priorities:

  1. Covid-19 response: protecting our borders and New Zealanders from the job losses and excessive costs of further restrictions and lockdowns
  2. Economic recovery: leveraging our businesses as a way to help Kiwis get ahead
  3. Hardship & public safety: focusing on evidence-based support to change the lives of those most in need, and supporting Police to keep our communities safe
  4. Housing, infrastructure and world-class cities: making it easier to build houses and freeing up land with greater urgency
  5. Technology and post-Covid opportunities: Growing our tech sector to create high-paying jobs and world-leading companies

12.40pm: Ministry to reveal if Covid-19 has spread in Northland

The Ministry of Health will shortly be revealing the latest details about the new case of Covid-19 in Northland. At this stage, nobody in the community has contracted the virus from the 56-year-old woman, despite her visiting about 30 locations while infectious.

The latest information will come via press release, with Jacinda Ardern fronting today’s 3pm post-cabinet press conference.

11.15am: Opposition continues push for fast-tracked vaccine

National’s leader and Covid-19 response spokesperson are once again calling for “immediate action” to avoid further lockdowns.

The opposition is asking for cabinet to agree to fast-track the vaccination of frontline workers and border staff – effectively matching the rollout planned for Australia.

In a statement, Judith Collins said vaccinating border staff is an “economic and moral” imperative.

“Those who work in and around quarantine must be vaccinated as quickly as possible to protect New Zealanders from the harm of further restrictions or lockdowns,” Collins said.

“For many, the cost of another lockdown would mean they lose their job, their business or their home. Our geographical isolation shouldn’t allow the Government to be complacent.”

Chris Bishop said New Zealand’s vaccination schedule is “miles behind” the rest of the world.

“We were told last year that our relative success in fighting Covid-19 would not mean we would be late in receiving vaccines. But, as with so many things, the Government has not been able to deliver,” he said.

An update on the government’s vaccine timeline is expected at today’s post-cabinet press conference, while the latest Covid-19 details will be provided at 1pm.

Collins is in Auckland today to deliver her state of the nation address – we’ll have live coverage this afternoon.

10.00am: Next steps in Trump impeachment announced

The article of impeachment against former president Donald Trump will officially be brought to the senate today, ahead of a trial set to begin early next month.

Trump became the first president to be impeached twice earlier this month, after inciting the riot against the US capitol on January 6.

According to USA Today, senators will be sworn in as members of the “Court of Impeachment” on Tuesday, before a summons is issued to Trump. The president will then have a week to answer the article.

The trial itself will begin roughly a week later, on February 8.

Read more here

8.55am: 14 close contacts of Northland case test negative

It’s been confirmed that 14 close contacts of the Northland woman who contracted the South African variant of Covid-19 have tested negative for the virus.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins revealed the news on Twitter, stating that just three close contacts are yet to have received their test result.

Yesterday, the woman’s husband and hairdresser were confirmed to have tested negative.

It means that, so far, nobody in the community has contracted the virus from the woman, who herself caught it during a stay in managed isolation.

Hipkins called the news “encouraging”. We’re expecting more details in today’s 1pm update.

The Agenda

Here’s what I’ll be covering today (along with any breaking news):

  • 1pm: The latest Covid-19 case numbers and details.
  • National Party leader Judith Collins will be delivering her State of the Nation address.
  • Regional wrap: A look at what’s making the news outside of the main centres.
  • The latest details on the impeachment trial of Donald Trump.
  • 4pm: Post-cabinet press conference with news on the vaccine rollout.

7.45am: Thousands of Covid-19 test results expected back today

The results of thousands of Covid-19 tests from across the top of the North Island will be made public today, giving us a better idea of whether there has been further spread of the South African strain of the virus.

There were reports yesterday of people queuing for as long as seven hours to get a test, after a Northland woman tested positive for Covid-19 over the weekend.

Yesterday, there were no new community cases of the virus to report and two close contacts – including the woman’s husband – had tested negative.

University of Auckland modelling expert Shaun Hendy told RNZ’s Morning Report programme that a community outbreak of the South African variant of Covid-19 would be sufficient to bring us back into lockdown.

“We’d need to quickly bring in a level four… because of the higher transmissibility,” Hendy said.

However, he does not anticipate the current Northland case will lead to a shift up the alert levels just yet.

“I don’t think with this particular case that we will be in that situation,” he said. “[In August], we didn’t know the origin of [the Auckland] case. In this case, because we have a fairly high degree of certainty that it was picked up in MIQ in Auckland, the chance of their being a high number of cases that we don’t know about are quite slim.”

7.30am: Top stories from The Bulletin

As of this morning, we’re still waiting on some crucial information about the situation in Northland, after a person travelled through the region before testing positive for Covid-19. The big one will be starting to see the results of a massive community testing push. Northern Advocate journalists reported that even with extra testing sites in place, the extreme high demand for tests was not met by health officials. Two test results that matter a great deal – the woman’s husband and a hairdresser who was a close contact – came back yesterday morning as negative. That means that at this stage, there is still no confirmation that any community transmission has taken place.

At yesterday’s 1pm press conference, a few policy changes were announced. Because genomic sequencing has linked the Northland case to the Pullman managed isolation facility, that’s where several changes have been focused. People scheduled for release from the facility have had their exits delayed, and will be required to test negative again before getting out. There’s also an interesting line of questioning happening at the moment about ventilation in managed isolation hotels, and whether it contributed to the virus spreading between quarantineers – Radio NZ’s Rowan Quinn has looked into that. As Stuff’s Josephine Franks reports, there are also questions about whether two weeks is really long enough in quarantine, given this particular case tested negative twice during her fortnight-long stay.

The woman is understood to have the South African strain of the virus – so-called because that’s where in the world it was identified. For more on the various strains going around, Dr Siouxsie Wiles wrote about why the differences between them matter. There isn’t as much data on this particular strain compared to (for example) the UK strain, but it is believed to be more infectious than the original Covid-19.

Meanwhile, Australia has suspended quarantine-free travel from New Zealand, popping their half of the trans-Tasman bubble (of which the other half was never inflated.) The restrictions will be in place for the next 72 hours – the ABC reports it is being done out of an “abundance of caution”, and travel links will be reinstated if it turns out that there hasn’t been an outbreak. Anyone who has arrived in Australia from New Zealand since January 14 is being told to self-isolate, pending a negative test, and several flights to Melbourne and Sydney out of Auckland this morning have been cancelled. As the NZ Herald’s Audrey Young writes, it’ll be another problem to add to the pile discussed at today’s Cabinet meeting – the first of the year. There will also be a press conference afterwards, at which we might get a better idea of what the rest of the week looks like.

7am: Yesterday’s headlines

There were no new community Covid-19 cases linked to the Northland woman who tested positive over the weekend.

Genome sequencing confirmed the woman had contracted the South African strain of the virus. It is believed she was infected while in managed isolation.

Quarantine-free travel for New Zealanders to Australia has been suspended for the next 72 hours.

Australia has approved the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine with the first jabs set to be administered from next month.

Read all the key stories in yesterday’s live updates




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