25 Aug 2020

Masks should also be mandatory in bars and restaurants - public health professor Nick Wilson

9:17 am on 25 August 2020

Masks should become compulsory in bars and restaurants at level 2, leading public health professor Nick Wilson says.

Man in restaurant wearing face mask to protect against Covid-19.

"In other countries people lift their mask when they're having a drink or eating," Nick Wilson said. File photo Photo: 123RF

The government has made face coverings compulsory on public transport from Monday any time the country is in level 2 or above.

But Otago University's professor Nick Wilson said they had missed a chance to plug a dangerous gap in the Covid response.

Masks should be required in all crowded public places - and bars and clubs were some of the riskiest, he said.

"The key thing is often the music is loud, so often people are talking loudly and they're often in close proximity," he said.

And masks did not need to stop people enjoying food or a drink, he said.

"In other countries people lift the mask up when they're having a drink or eating ... it's more talking loudly that's a concern, rather than people lifting the mask to have a drink," he said.

However, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Morning Report that the government was not considering extending mandatory mask use to hospitality, because there were already precautions in place at level 2, including requirements for spacing, seating and servers.

"Keeping in mind that unlike buses and public transport, we do know through tracking, use of the app and bookings through hospitality who are in different venues and so that certainly helps."

Professor Michael Baker has also previously advocated for mass masking in public, prior to even the government's recommendation for New Zealanders to use them.

Asked why the government would not follow Prof Wilson's latest advice, Ardern said she also took into account the view of public health specialists in the Ministry of Health.

"Not everyone shares the same view on every single issue, there is some contestable views.

"Masks are not a substitute for physical distancing and we've always had physical distancing built into our alert levels, but it's very clear to us that actually maintaining that physical distancing on buses and public transport is difficult."

Otago University Professor Nick Wilson.

Prof Nick Wilson. Photo: Supplied / Otago University Wellington

World leaders in keeping Covid at bay, like Taiwan, used the policy and it could help prevent future lockdowns, he said.

Papakura GP and Auckland University associate professor Matire Harwood said she wanted the government to be clearer about its masking policy.

It should be advocating for more protective varieties than the basic face covering it would currently accept - and it should be giving advice on the safest way to use them, she said.

Dr Harwood said the government's decision to stay in level 3 for four days longer - until Monday - was the right one.

"I think it is a safe one, particularly for our communities in South Auckland because we really need to get this well controlled, understand if we have all the cases, and make sure we have a good surveillance programme in place," she said.

There were five cases which had not yet been linked to the main cluster which stands at 101.

*See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19

Auckland University Covid-19 modeller Shaun Hendy agreed level 3 for a little longer was the right thing to do.

More understanding was needed of how the disease was tracking, particularly as some cases had now been caught on public transport, he said.

"It gives us a chance to look at the case numbers over the coming week and just ensure that everything is linked back to that main cluster," he said.

All three experts still worried about the risk from the border, with no definitive answer about how the latest outbreak got into the community.

Professor Nick Wilson said moving the risk away from Auckland's dense population could be the answer.

Managed isolation and quarantine facilities should move from hotels and motels, which were not properly equipped for them, to airforce bases like Ōhakea.

That meant people could simply land there from overseas and stay there for two weeks.

"So there would be none of these complex arrangements of people being bussed around or having separate flights and all this which increases risk at all these different levels," he said.

Though it may be expensive to build new facilities, it would be offset against the hundreds of millions being spent on hotels - plus the economic benefit of preventing lockdowns, he said.

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