6 Sep 2021

Modified alert level 1 possible again for NZ - Professor Baker

From Checkpoint, 5:38 pm on 6 September 2021

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says there are inconsistencies with the new level 2 rules, especially around mask-wearing at schools.

Today the prime minister announced face coverings will be mandatory at level 2 in most public venues, but they are not being mandated in schools, although they are recommended.

"There are inconsistencies, and actually the one I'm most concerned about is schools," Baker says.

"We remember this from early in the pandemic when we got masks added into public transport and aircraft, but actually school buses were exempt from it.

"We're seeing that same split still in there, that we're not really applying the same approach, particularly to secondary school-age students in these various settings, and I think that's a real gap.

"And there's two problems with this. One is, it means that children are missing out on one of these essential protections, if we do get an outbreak. And of course they are great at transmitting the virus to their families.

"The other opportunity I think we're really missing here is the one about education that we found with hand washing with school students who learned how to wash their hands properly and will take this message home to their families, who, in many cases were not actually that diligent.

"So I think we're really underestimating the potential for school students to be real leaders in this area."

Professor Baker said mandatory mask wearing would be good for high schools and intermediate schools.

"I think it's more optional in primary school age students but, internationally, they are wearing masks overseas so it's not impossible."

Bloomfield today said mask use for university students is not mandatory, but strongly encouraged.

However he said there are positive features about the revised level 2.

"It's recognising that this virus is transmitted very easily indoors with aerosols that have a big range and the one and two metre rules were not really enough.

"I think the big advance here is this recognition we saw at alert level 4 and 3 that people need to be wearing masks indoors. I think that's a real advance for New Zealand that does reflect how this virus is transmitted.

"Also the acceptance that we have to have fewer people in these indoor environments because we're seeing these super-spreading episodes already happen in this outbreak."

Baker said the biggest issue in our Covid-19 response is essential workers crossing through Auckland.

"That's still the biggest weakpoint in what is otherwise a very effective measure for dampening down this virus and eliminating it."

Asked how long she thinks it might be until the country returns to Level 1, Ardern today said "it will literally come down to the public health advice we have". 

Baker said getting back to level 1 before Christmas is possible but Kiwis tend to forget that we've enjoyed the highest level of freedoms of any country in the OECD. 

"Our expectations are high. I think it's possible we would return to an alert level 1 of some form but I think it would need to be modified. We would have, for example, mandatory scanning in which I think is here to stay at all levels."

Baker said the big question is what happens when the population is vaccinated and whether we continue with the elimination strategy or transition to living with the virus.