Health experts say they are mystified over the government’s reluctance to enforce mandatory mask wearing and QR code scanning under alert level 2.
Masks are compulsory on public transport, domestic flights and in taxis under alert level 1 but these rules do not expand under alert level 2.
Instead, Wellingtonians are currently being asked to wear masks when they cannot socially distance two metres in public spaces and one metre indoors.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has reiterated that while mandating masks is always on the table, current public health advice does not justify these measures.
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said this is perplexing given masks and the Covid Tracer app are simple and effective tools for avoiding outbreaks.
“The whole world has embraced masks. I think New Zealand now looks to be an outlier in not really having established a mask-using culture.”
Baker would like to see masks be made mandatory under alert level 2, and compulsory QR code scanning in ‘high-risk’ spaces like bars, gyms and restaurants.
“None of us are saying we need to wear masks everywhere and forever; it’s only using them in very selected places and periods when there is a real risk of transmission of the virus.”
University of Otago public health expert Professor Nick Wilson agreed with Baker, and said the government is making a mistake in not mandating the measures now.
“This is an example where the government is missing out a very effective and low-cost intervention that would help prevent situations getting out of control and reducing the risk of really expensive and troubling lockdowns.”
Baker said people are often infectious for up to two days before they show symptoms and without mandated masks, he worries social distancing will not stave off the now-airborne virus.
“I’m not making this up I’m just looking at the weight of evidence, which I think is overwhelming now. We’re still behaving, I think as a country, with our rules and laws and policies … as though they [it] were a year ago.”
But Covid-19 modelling expert Professor Shaun Hendy said resistance to mandatory masks and scanning reveals a government trying to find balance.
He pointed to criticism of the government in February this year, after it put Auckland in alert level 3 over a handful of cases.
“The government will be conscious of not being seen to overreact; that its response is proportionate to the risk that’s evident.
“It doesn’t want to undermine its own long-term ability to use these different measures, it wants to be seen to be taking an appropriate risk management strategy.”
Hendy said the scientific evidence may well point to mandatory mask wearing and scanning, but any response to Covid-19 will need a team of five million.
“We’ve been very successful in our fight against Covid-19 because the whole country’s come with us; that’s been absolutely essential. We haven’t had to rely on draconian measures to enforce lockdowns; by and large everybody’s complied and they’ve done so willingly but we’ve got a long haul.
“Even with the vaccine programme rolling out we’ve still got many, many months before those risks start to drop away. So it’s important the public stay with the government on this.”
Hipkins said while compulsory mask wearing and QR code scanning is always under review, current public health advice do not justify these measures.
“I wouldn’t rule it out but at this point we would have to work through all of the logistical barriers that might be involved there and we just haven’t done that at this point.”
He said the biggest challenge with mandatory QR code scanning was how this would be enforced, and any compliance burdens that may roll onto businesses.
“If you’re going to make it mandatory then you’d need to have some form of enforcement otherwise making it mandatory would be a pointless exercise.”
He said the government continues to encourage people to wear masks wherever they cannot socially distance from others and use the Covid Tracer app.