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Ardern opted for the second path. When New Zealand had only reported 28 cases, Ardern closed borders to foreigners, and when there were 102 cases, she announced a nationwide lockdown.

In effect, Ardern offered New Zealanders a deal: put up with some of the toughest rules in the world, and in return, be kept safe — first from the deadly coronavirus, and later, from potential economic devastation.

Then, last week, that changed.

The country reported its first cases of community transmission in three months, forcing the country’s most populous city, Auckland, back under lockdown. The national election was postponed for one of the few times in the country’s history.

Somehow, authorities said, the virus appeared to have crept in through the border. As of Thursday, New Zealand has 101 active cases, bringing the country’s total reported coronavirus cases to 1,304, including 22 deaths.

That prompted outrage from New Zealand’s opposition parties, who questioned whether the government failed to uphold their end of the bargain. “The Government has one job: keep the virus out of our community so we can avoid lockdowns. It has failed and we are all paying the price,” said David Seymour, the leader of right-wing minority party ACT.

Around Asia-Pacific, other countries that entered into similar implicit deals with their citizens are facing similar situations. Australia, for instance, also took swift, tough action at the start of the pandemic — but issues at the border lead to an outbreak in the state of Victoria, prompting the country’s second-biggest city, Melbourne, to return to a lockdown and be placed under a curfew.

Now, as those in Europe go on holiday, people in parts of New Zealand and Australia — two countries that were once held up as examples of how to handle the virus — remain under lockdown. To some, that begs the question: did they take the right approach? And by promising safety, were governments like Ardern’s always setting themselves up to fail?

Inevitable outbreak?

Right from the start, Ardern was clear — she didn’t want to simply limit the impact of coronavirus, she wanted to eliminate it.

Elimination — which the New Zealand health authorities defined as stopping the chains of transmission in the country — was an ambitious goal, and one that few nations adopted.

But Ardern and her government said it was the right one to protect the health of both the public and the economy — and by April, New Zealand announced that it had achieved its goal of eliminating the virus.

For months, New Zealand had no instances of community transmission, but even before the country announced its fresh cases, health authorities and experts were warning that another outbreak was inevitable.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield speaks to media on August 14, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand.

Shortly before New Zealand marked 100 days without any coronavirus transmission, Director-General of Health Dr. Ashley Bloomfield advised people to stock up on face masks.

“I don’t think it’s scaremongering asking ask people to prepare for potential natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis and so on – it’s actually looking after people,” he said on a Facebook Live Q&A session. “This is about being prepared.”
New Zealand was acclaimed a world leader in handling Covid-19. Now it's dealing with a fresh outbreak

For some people, that didn’t really make sense. Only New Zealanders can come into the country, and even then, they must spend 14 days in a state-run quarantine facility and be tested twice for coronavirus. If the borders were secure, then why would a new outbreak be inevitable?

The problem in this case is that the borders weren’t that secure. Authorities have admitted that workers at New Zealand’s border facilities — people who would have been most vulnerable to catching the virus — weren’t being tested on a regular basis.

“I want to acknowledge, at the outset, that testing of staff working at our border has been too slow,” Health Minister Chris Hipkins said Tuesday. “It has not met the very clear expectations of Minister, the decisions that Cabinet has made were not implemented in a timely or a robust manner, and that is disappointing and frustrating.”

But even if the authorities hadn’t made errors, it’s possible to imagine a scenario where an infectious person could slip through the cracks. We know that false negative tests happen, so there’s a very small chance a person could be Covid-19 positive and still be infectious when they are let out into the community after 14 days.

As top scientist Peter Gluckman, former Prime Minister Helen Clark, and former Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe wrote in a paper in July: “As smugglers have known for centuries, border controls are never foolproof.”

What the outbreak means for Ardern

It’s never a good time for a resurgence of coronavirus, but the timing of this latest outbreak is particularly bad for Ardern.

In April, when New Zealand was under its strict lockdown, a survey showed 88% of New Zealanders trusted the government’s pandemic response, state broadcaster TVNZ reported. In the months since, Ardern’s party soared in popularity to well over 50%.

But now, with the election only eight weeks away, Ardern’s opponents have seized on the problems at the border.

On Thursday, Judith Collins, the leader of the main right-wing opposition National Party, launched its own proposed border policy, saying that the government’s “disorderly and confused response” had put the health and livelihoods of 5 million New Zealanders at risk.

Others questioned whether New Zealand’s focus on elimination was the right approach after all.

“Our attempt to eliminate Covid is an obsession that will destroy us,” wrote columnist Damien Grant on the country’s biggest news website, He echoed sentiments that have been rattling around New Zealand for a while — in their paper in July, Gluckman, Clark and Fyfe questioned whether New Zealand could afford to wait out another year or two “in almost total physical isolation.”
“We were told we went hard and early and we stayed longer in lockdown the first time, those additional hard weeks, because we wanted to avoid a yo-yo back into lockdown, and here we are again,” Paul Goldsmith, from the National Party, said Tuesday.
A general view of Chews Lanes ahead of a Covid-19 Alert Level announcement on August 14, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand.

As Goldsmith noted, there isn’t just a health risk in the virus returning — there’s an economic one from a return to lockdown.

Auckland makes up about 40% of New Zealand’s economy, and the country set aside another half a billion New Zealand dollars ($327 million) to help support workers during the city’s current lockdown. Lockdowns also come with other costs — like other countries, New Zealand saw a rise in domestic violence reports during its first nationwide lockdown, national broadcaster Radio New Zealand reported.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delays election over Covid-19

Ardern and her party will try to play up the benefits that have come from their strict handling, even if hasn’t been perfect.

The Prime Minister has consistently said that the best economic strategy is to win the fight against Covid-19. After all, there are costs to letting the virus spiral out of control. An out of control outbreak would have economic impacts anyway, and on top of that, there’s health resources, the cost of a slow recovery from coronavirus, and death.

So far, statistics show that New Zealand’s tough approach hasn’t had a devastating economic cost. Earlier this month, the government reported only 4% unemployment, although the underutilization rate grew from 10.4% to 12%, the largest quarterly rise since 2004.
“What we’re finding internationally is that countries that have control of Covid-19, like China, even if they’re experiencing occasional outbreaks, have stronger economies,” said Dominick Stephens, Westpac NZ’s chief economist, in a video statement last Friday. “Those countries that have lost control of the virus like the United States are seeing economic forecasts constantly revised down and are weaker economically.”
While Ardern’s critics are getting louder, there’s still goodwill toward the Prime Minister and her government — it wasn’t so long ago that New Zealand was the envy of the world. And New Zealand authorities have acted swiftly — a day after the new cases were announced last week, Auckland went into lockdown, and more than 100,000 tests were processed within five days.

But Ardern’s real test is yet to come. When the country heads to the polls in October, she’ll be hoping that, despite the hiccups, the country still thinks her tough coronavirus approach was worth it.

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India’s Ranjitsinh Disale wins 2020 Global Teacher Prize and splits it with runners-up

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The award, which is run by the Varkey Foundation in partnership with UNESCO, celebrates “exceptional” teachers who have made an outstanding contribution to their profession.

Ranjitsinh Disale, a teacher at Zilla Parishad Primary School, in the village of Paritewadi in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, was chosen as winner from more than 12,000 nominations and applications, from over 140 countries around the world.

The award recognized his efforts to promote girls’ education at the school, whose pupils are mostly from tribal communities.

The Global Teacher Prize said he learned the local language of the village in order to translate class textbooks into his pupils’ mother tongue.

He also created unique QR codes on the textbooks to give students access to audio poems, video lectures, stories and assignments, greatly improving school attendance. His QR technology is now being rolled out more widely across India.

The British actor and TV host Stephen Fry announced Disale as the winner at a virtual ceremony broadcast from the Natural History Museum in London on Thursday.

Rather than keeping all his winnings, Disale told Fry in an interview that he would share the prize with the other nine finalists, giving them $55,000 each — the first time anyone has done so in the award’s six-year history.

He told Fry: “I believe that if I share this prize money with nine teachers it means I can scale up their work. Their incredible work is still worthy… If I share the prize money with the rest of the teachers they will get a chance to continue their work… and we can reach out and lighten the lives of as many students as we can.”

His actions drew praise from around the world, including from the Dalai Lama, who said on Twitter and in a statement published online that he admired Disale for sharing the money.

“Educating young children, especially from poor and needy backgrounds is perhaps the best way to help them as individuals, and actively contributes to creating a better world,” he said.

The award’s nine runners-up are teachers working in the United States, Britain, Vietnam, Nigeria, South Africa, Italy, South Korea, Malaysia and Brazil.

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Pelosi eyes combining Covid aid with mammoth spending deal


Pelosi said the $908 billion proposal released this week by a centrist group of Senate and House members helped restart the stimulus talks, which fell apart just before the election after months of dragging on with little real movement.

“There is momentum — there is momentum with the action that the senators and House members in a bipartisan way have taken,” Pelosi said Friday, in the latest sign that negotiators are closing in on a deal. “The tone of our conversations is one that is indicative of the decision to get the job done.”

President-elect Joe Biden on Friday said he’s “encouraged” by the $908 billion proposal, framing it as the type of bipartisan work that he hopes to foster as president. He cautioned that “any package passed in the lame duck session is not going to be enough overall.”

But hurdles remain. Government funding runs out in just one week, and there are still a sizable number of issues impeding an agreement on a massive spending package that would increase agency budgets for the rest of the fiscal year.

The sheer number of outstanding items at such a late stage makes it increasingly likely that congressional negotiators will require a brief stopgap spending bill to complete their work before leaving for the holidays. Such a decision could be made early next week if lawmakers fail to make significant progress over the weekend.

Pelosi demurred when asked about the possibility of a short-term stopgap to buy more time for talks, and dismissed the need for a longer term continuing resolution that would extend current government funding into early next year.

“We will take the time that we need,” Pelosi said, while acknowledging that a number of issues remain, including some outside of appropriators’ jurisdiction.

“Don’t worry about a date,” she added.

While appropriators in both chambers remain optimistic that they’ll finish their work before the holidays, Republicans and Democrats are still swapping offers and arguing over details, kicking some of the most difficult items up to congressional leaders.

For example, a House Democratic aide close to the talks said Republicans want to scrub any mentions of Covid-19 from the omnibus package entirely. Earlier this year, House Democrats added coronavirus relief to their slate of fiscal 2021 appropriations bills, while Senate Republicans have insisted that pandemic aid remain totally separate from annual appropriations measures.

Republicans are also objecting to funding for research on reducing racial and ethnic inequalities in the justice system, in addition to language that would require the Capitol Police to report on policies and procedures on eliminating unconscious bias and racial profiling during training, the Democratic aide said.

Republicans, meanwhile, are accusing Democrats of holding up omnibus talks by insisting on the removal of two Interior-Environment policy riders that have been included in annual spending bills for years. The provisions involve protections for the greater sage-grouse, in addition to a provision related to the carbon neutrality of forest biomass.

“Dredging these up right now is beyond counterproductive,” a GOP aide familiar with the talks said Thursday night.

Funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall also remains a perennial sticking point — Senate Republicans have proposed $2 billion for fiscal 2021, which began on Oct. 1. House Democrats have proposed no extra cash.

Lawmakers have also disagreed on detention beds for detained migrants in recent days, although Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — the top Senate Democrat who oversees funding for the Department of Homeland Security — said Thursday that issue may get solved without the help of leadership.

Also in question is whether the White House will ultimately support a package that classifies billions of dollars in veterans’ health care spending as “emergency” spending outside of strict budget limits. Both House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey and Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby are moving forward with their negotiations assuming that’s the case, since the White House has previously signed off on such an arrangement.

Pelosi on Friday also said that whatever coronavirus relief they include in the government funding bill will not be the last time Congress addresses the ongoing pandemic, which continues to devastate the U.S., killing more than 275,000 Americans and causing a sharp downturn in the economy. The U.S. saw the deadliest day ever on Thursday, with Covid-19 fatalities exceeding 2,700.

“President-elect Biden has said that this package would be, just at best, just a start. And that’s how we see it as well,” Pelosi said.

The speaker also defended her decision to hold out for months, demanding a larger deal in the ballpark of $2 trillion or more, only to agree to negotiate this smaller package now. McConnell, similarly, refused to come off his much smaller baseline over the summer — pushing a $500 billion package — resulting in a standoff between congressional leaders.

“That was not a mistake, it was a decision,” Pelosi told reporters, saying the dynamics have significantly shifted since the election of Biden and the quicker than expected vaccine development. “That is a total game changer — a new president and a vaccine.”

With cautious optimism about the prospect of passing some fiscal stimulus to buoy the American economy during a bleak pandemic winter, lawmakers remain hopeful that Congress will pull it together before leaving Washington, despite lingering omnibus headaches.

“You know this place — turns on a dime,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who was elected by the Democratic caucus on Thursday as the next Appropriations chair.

Sarah Ferris contributed to this story.

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Gavin Williamson Claims The UK Approved A Coronavirus Vaccine First Because It Is A “Much Better Country”

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Gavin Williamson has claimed the UK is a “much better country” than France, Belgium and the US

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Gavin Williamson has claimed the UK’s speedy approval of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine was due to it being a “much better country” than France, Belgium and the US.

The UK become the first country in the world to approve a clinical vaccine for coronavirus on Wednesday after the medicines regulator, the MHRA, gave the green light for the jab to be rolled out from next week.

The Education Secretary said this is because the UK has the “best medical regulators”, dodging questions about the impact of Brexit on the approval process of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Speaking after the approval announcement on Wednesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that “because of Brexit” the UK regulator had been able to approve the vaccine without having to wait for the European Medicines Agency to do so.

But his claims were later contradicted by both No10 and senior figures within the regulator, with a spokesperson for Boris Johnson insisting the approval was “thanks to the hard work of the MHRA”.

Meanwhile, Dr June Raine, head of the regulatory agency said the green light to roll out the vaccine from next week was made “using provisions under European law which exist until January 1”.

But pressed on the impact of Brexit on the approval process, Mr Williamson instead suggested the approval was down to the UK having “much better” medical regulators than France, Belgium and America.

“Well I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulators,” he told LBC

“Much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country that every single one of them, aren’t we.”

He added: “Just being able to get on with things, deliver it and with brilliant people in our medical regulator making it happen means that people in this country are going to be the first ones in the world to get that Pfizer vaccine.”

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