The Government has dumped a revealing mass of documents related to its COVID-19 response, showing ways it aimed to influence public perception of good hygiene, to expectations of how long the nation could be under alert levels.
Newshub has pored through the hoard of documents published on Friday afternoon to find the most interesting bits of information about the Government's response to what's been described as a "1-in-100 year" crisis.
Here's some of what we found.
The alert level system
- In the scenario that New Zealand returns to alert level 4, officials suggest changes allowing online ordering of goods, beyond essential products, as long as it's managed well.
- It's noted that if New Zealand could be at alert level 3 or 4 for "a moderate amount of time", and if we need to move between levels "repeatedly over the next one to two years", settings could be adjusted to suit the circumstances.
- On April 15, a Cabinet paper notes the Government will "need to work hard" to manage expectations around workplace use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitiser to prevent supply running dry for high-priority users.
- The documents note a "proliferation of agreements between workers and employers where PPE is provided in exchange for workers returning to work, even where PPE is not required to safely carry out work.
"This could come at the expense of the national good in terms of PPE supply for those who actually need it," the document warns.
Wage subsidy scheme
- The documents reveal unions successfully lobbied the Government to increase the minimum payment to staff if employers took up the wage subsidy scheme, from 60 percent of their original wage to 80 percent.
- There were also concerns raised about publishing the names of businesses in a public list of who took up the subsidy, over fears it might breach privacy rights.
- The documents reveal that, even though New Zealand is suffering from a huge drop in visitor numbers thanks to COVID-19, there was already some softening of visitor growth in the 2019/2020 season.
The drop is attributed to the bushfires in Australia, as well as uncertainty caused by the Whakaari / White Island disaster in late 2019, and early anxiety brought on by coronavirus which emerged at the start of the year.
- Officials initially underestimated the digital divide - the number of children without access to the internet - by a whopping third. There are an estimated 82,000 households without internet "up from 50,000, when initial emergency funding was agreed", the document reveals.
- A briefing on family and sexual violence reveals concerns about children using the internet more than they normally would, increasing their exposure to "inappropriate content" such as pornography.
"The largest online pornography site (Pornhub) has shown an increase in usage in New Zealand, and other countries, as we moved into alert level 4. This usage is up over the same period last year".
- Cabinet ministers were warned university students - except sole parents - would be better off on the benefit than claiming a weekly student loan payment. Cabinet documents note the Government's own welfare changes exacerbated the gap - it increased the main benefit payment and widened access to the winter energy payment.
As a result, "officials anticipate that some students will withdraw from study and move to a benefit." That's all compounded by potential loss of income from part-time jobs for students; the documents acknowledging, "Students may also not benefit from the wage subsidy if they are in casual work that no longer exists because of COVID-19."
- Officials proposed that airlines be able to request a statement from each person who intends to board a plane to New Zealand asking whether they have "been in a place of concern" in the past 14 days.
If they had been, the airline would be "obligated to advise" Immigration New Zealand of the details, who would then "make a decision about whether to board that person" - essentially blocking people from coming here based on where they'd been.
It's noted that Immigration New Zealand cannot prevent Kiwi citizens from travelling or entering the country, but airlines "may however decide not to carry an individual".
The proposal was flagged as potentially breaching the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act based on the risk that discrimination could occur "on the grounds of nationality".
- Officials also noted that if the borders remained open as they were, the "current people flow to New Zealand could precipitate more cases and fuel early stages of epidemic here".
- "Ministers should be aware that if there are pressures on global supply chains, prices are likely to spike. While $200 million has been set aside by Cabinet, this will not cover the expected costs of COVID-19 preparedness and response".
- Concerns were also raised about the impact of borders closing to New Zealand because of our reliance on international trade routes. "Once closed, there are risks some may not reopen in the medium term. The impact of limiting travel from Europe will also affect the viability of Asian transit routes to New Zealand".
- The potential economic impact is highlighted: "Annual revenue from US and European visitors is $2.8 billion, compared to $1.6bn from China. The cumulative impact of these decisions if they were to hold for a year is $3.4bn. This is well over 1 percent of GDP in itself. On top would be the loss of merchandise trade".
- Immigration New Zealand has already seen a decline in revenue from the decrease in visa payments. The predicted decline in revenue is around $26 million to June 2020.
Health / Testing
- In mid-April, the COVID-19 Monitoring report from the National Crisis Management Centre suggested in late March/early April "there was uncontrolled community transmission", but it was unknown how widespread this was because of "gaps in the data". At around that time, case numbers were rapidly increasing.
- The analysts noted a "significant number of cases have missing information and others have been under investigation for a long time" and that this "somewhat reduces our confidence in the data on cases of community transmission".
- On testing, it was noted that the "average speed of the process needs to improve", and on self-isolation of suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases officials warned they "currently have very little understanding of compliance".
- Officials also noted a "substantial risk" that the effect of alert level 4 has been to create latent demand for health services that may translate into actual demand for the likes of elective surgeries at a lower alert level.
- For those who like a table, this one compares the NZ response to a number of other countries.
- Based on data from late April, it shows New Zealand's economic response is smaller than the US and Australia, with a test-rate significantly better than the UK, France and Sweden, but lower than Italy and Denmark.
- A Cabinet document acknowledges "substantial evidence from previous pandemics" that Māori will be an increased risk and worse impacted by the virus outbreak. It recommends an extension of current initiatives, and new initiatives to ensure risks faced by Māori will be met.
- Just two papers are specific to Māori - both bids for Māori-specific funding.