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Covid-19: Government releases hundreds of documents on its response

The government has released a wealth of material related to its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The release of more than 300 documents includes papers, minutes and advice to most sectors of the government from January until 17 April.

One of the earliest papers dates back to 28 January, when a cabinet minute discussed a low risk to New Zealand but a potentially serious risk to public health.

Other official documents discuss the decision-making centred on alert levels and restrictions, the border, public heath, housing, income support and foreign affairs.

The border

Customs advice on 5 February on re-opening eGates to some international flights said the Ministry of Health was "satisfied that flights arriving from Australia, Singapore and the United States pose minimal risk of carrying anyone who has been exposed to the Novel Coronavirus and is asymptomatic."

"Re-opening eGates to passengers with eligible passports arriving on these flights will result in quicker processing, reduced delays to passengers and a lessoning of the impact on frontline resources."

More than half of all the flights arriving in New Zealand were people from the US, Singapore and Australia.

The day before the advice, 18,686 passengers arrived in New Zealand.

Chinese nationals holding valid work visas

Officials in early February had no accurate information on how many offshore Chinese nationals held valid work visas for New Zealand.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's advice to Minister of Immigration Iain Lees-Galloway offered options for travel restriction exemptions.

"Officials are still working on an estimate of the number of people affected. As at 5 February we are unable to provide you with an accurate estimate of the number of Chinese nationals who hold a valid work visa but are offshore."

Officials expected to be able to provide the information to the minister within 48 hours, and estimated the number of offshore Chinese nationals with valid work visas was less than the number of Chinese nationals with a valid study visa - 11,280.

Health advice

Ministry of Health advice to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on 2 February discussed the evidence of the severity of the infection.

"Currently the evidence is that this infection is only severe and life threatening for a minority of those infected. However, we know that viruses mutate over time, which can change their ability to transmit and the severity of the illness that they cause," the advice read.

"While vaccine development is underway it will take some months at a minimum before a vaccine would be widely available."

Confidence in community transmission data

The National Management Crisis Centre told the Covid-19 Ministerial group on 15 April that they didn't have confidence in the reported rates of community transmission.

In a weekly briefing, the centre said there was undetected community transmission around three weeks earlier, but they didn't know how widespread.

It told the government there were gaps in the data making it harder to prepare the report.

It said a significant amount of cases had missing information and others had been under investigation for a long time reducing its confidence in the data on cases of community transmission

Accommodation funding for returning travellers

The Temporary Accommodation Service got roughly half of the $15 million funding boost it said it needed to quarantine thousands of people.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment sought the funds to cover emergency accomodation for those arriving in New Zealand from overseas.

Before it had even got the money, it paid a company $2 million to secure 2000 campervans, and booked hundreds of hotel rooms.

But Cabinet granted it just $8 million on 3 April.

Learning from home

On 23 March, Cabinet authorised the Finance and Education Ministers to approve $36.44 million so students could work online from home if they were in lockdown, or if their school was closed.

However, after more calculations, the cost rose to $51.34m, according to a paper dated on 7 April.

In another document on 2 April, Chris Hipkins was told by the Ministry of Education that about 82,000 households were without proper internet access - so that disadvantaged about 145,000 school students.

The ministry told Hipkins it was addressing that issue by connecting households with internet and distributing devices to use at home, as well as hard copy education packs.

It was also agreed that TVNZ would begin broadcasting education segments for at least three months.

On 2 April, the ministry warned Hipkins it was already hearing of students withdrawing from tertiary education and moving to the welfare system because that provided them with more financial support.

In that document, it was agreed that students would continue to receive student allowances, as well as increasing course-related costs.

On 2 April, the minister was again briefed about tertiary students.

The ministry document said there were currently more than 300,000 students enrolled in tertiary education.

It said about 160,000 students received financial support from the Ministry of Social Development.

The document said student groups and tertiary education providers were reporting that students were looking to withdraw.

However at that date, it said it was too early to tell how many students would leave.

Rules around wills

The rules around witnesses for wills, oaths, declarations and affirmations all had to be relaxed to allow for Covid-19 restrictions.

In a document from the Minister of Justice released today, it said it would be impossible or impracticable to comply with the requirements and restrictions expected under the current laws.

That meant the requirement that will-making be witnessed by two people in the presence of the will-maker was changed to the witnesses signing remotely via audio-visual link.

The paper outlined flexibility was particularly important around wills, given older and more vulnerable people, would be wanting to get their affairs in order at a time when an epidemic was sweeping the country.

Income support

The Ministry of Social Development put the cost of increasing unemployment and other benefits at $2.3 billion over the next four years.

The $25-a-week increase came into effect in April, and was the largest one-off change in benefits in several decades.

The ministry estimated the move would benefit 350,000 low-income households.

The decision to double the winter energy payment will cost an extra $480 million this year, affecting about 800,000 people.

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