13 Apr 2022

Hipkins slipping? Chagrin over mask rules mix-up

4:14 pm on 13 April 2022

The calm, confident visage of Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins slipped into confusion and contrition over mask rules this afternoon.

Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins delivers the Covid case numbers in the 1pm press conference in the Beehive Theatrette.

Photo: POOL / Stuff / Robert Kitchin

He could well be hiding his face after today's performance.

The 1pm Covid-19 media briefing today started ordinarily enough, setting out the government's decision to move New Zealand to the orange setting from midnight tonight.

He tripped over the detail of what it would actually mean however, initially saying masks would no longer be required on public transport and flights.

"It won't be as widespread as it has been up till now."

But that would amount to a drastic shift and a softening of what is now the main line of defence - apart from vaccines - against the virus. Pulled up on this by reporters, he quickly changed his tune and sought clarification from his smartphone.

"I just didn't bring the list, it was several weeks ago we made that decision around masks, so let me just double check I'm getting it absolutely correct for you."

He says he "just had a mind blank" over which places the masks were still required, and apologised.

"That was my mistake. I did not refresh my memory sufficiently about mask requirements at orange before I came down here. I apologise for that. That was my mistake, the guidance is very clear. Yes I should have been familiar with that guidance before I came to do this, I will accept responsibility for the fact that I did not do that. There's been quite a lot going on."

He clarified there were no new changes to what had previously announced, including a potential change to require masks in schools at orange, which had been championed by some health experts.

"Ultimately looking at a school-by-school basis, in some schools there is still a very strong justification for masks - but not all ... It is very challenging for schools, it has proven to be one of the most challenging Covid-19 requirements."

He says schools have been provided with guidance, and they have access to public health guidance so they can consider the advice for themselves.

Questioned over the logic on keeping masks for retail but not hospitality, he said there were "going to be a lot more people in a supermarket on a weekly basis than they'll be out and about pashing on a dancefloor".

He says the guidance is logical, because it is focused on reducing the overall quantum of risk.

"I don't know that we would receive a lot of compliance if we required people to be wearing masks in a nightclub or a bar ... it's a set of decisions that allows us to reopen that part of the hospitality industry".

Wait, so what are the rules?

The Covid-19 website states at orange, as a general rule, you are encouraged to wear a mask when it is hard to physically distance from people you do not know.

You should also wear a mask whenever indoors except at your home or your place of work if it is not public-facing. Employers may also separately encourage mask-wearing.

You do not need to wear a mask when exercising or when outdoors, and performers and formal speakers are not required to when performing or speaking.

Masks are required for workers and volunteers at gatherings (unless they have an exception) and encouraged but not required for guests.

Officially acceptable masks must be attached to the face by loops around the ears or head: no scarves, bandannas or t-shirts as face coverings.

Places where masks are still REQUIRED at orange:

  • Domestic flights
  • On public transport including Cook Strait Ferries, but not including passengers within their allocated carriage on specified Kiwirail services or when you are on a ship that does not have an enclosed space for passengers
  • At indoor arrival and departure points for domestic flights and public transport
  • If you are aged 12 years or over on Ministry of Education funded school transport and public transport
  • Taxis or ride share vehicles
  • Inside retail businesses like supermarkets, shopping malls, pharmacies, petrol stations, and takeaway food stores
  • Inside public facilities such as museums and libraries, but not at swimming pools
  • At a vet clinic
  • Visiting the indoor area of a court or tribunal - unless the judicial officer does not require them
  • At premises operated by local and central government agencies, social service providers, and NZ Police
  • In the public area of premises operated by NZ Post Limited
  • When visiting a healthcare service, for example a healthcare or aged care facility

Required at red, but only RECOMMENDED at orange:

  • Age limits change from over eight years old at red to over 12 years old at orange for Ministry of Education-funded transport like school buses
  • Indoor settings at schools like classrooms and assemblies. This includes visitors, workers, and students and teachers in Years 4 to 13
  • Inside at tertiary education facilities
  • When visiting a licensed early childhood service
  • At food and drink businesses, for example cafes, bars and restaurants - if you are seated indoors. You can take your mask off when seated and to eat and drink
  • At close-proximity businesses, for example hairdressers, barbers, beauty salons
  • At an indoor event
  • At an indoor gathering, except when you have exclusive use of the venue or defined space

Opponents urge end to traffic lights

Opposition leader Christopher Luxon of the National Party said Hipkins' error showed how confusing the traffic light system was.

"I just think it underscores that it's got very very confusing very very quickly ... let's just have a few basic things around masks and isolation periods and let's move forward."

ACT leader David Seymour too wanted to switch off the traffic lights.

"The traffic lights system's purpose was to simplify the rules. They've made so many changes to the traffic light system that the traffic lights no longer have any meaning, so I'm not surprised that even the minister is not familiar with orange, which normally he would be."

Hipkins' National Party counterpart Chris Bishop agreed.

"People are forced to tune in every week or so to find out ... frankly if the guy who's meant to be in charge of running the Covid response is confused about what the mask rules are, how on earth is your average retail worker or hospitality worker or school teacher or any ordinary New Zealander meant to know?"

"It's for people to judge themselves how Chris Hipkins performs but, you know, I think people expect the Minister of Covid-19 Response to be across the rules, particularly when he's announcing what the new rules are that day."

He did have a slightly better idea of where the masks would be required...

"Ah, my understanding is that you have to wear them on public transport, buses and trains for example and when you're shopping, but you no longer have to when you're out at a cafe for example, but I think many cafes will encourage it."

However, he admitted his understanding was based on a tweet by a political reporter.

He thought New Zealand should move to a model where people could decide whether to wear a mask or not, and said "the only person I'll be pashing over the weekend is my very pregnant wife, thanks."

Green Party co-leader James Shaw seemed similarly perturbed by questions over dancefloor dalliances.

"That's a very strange way of phrasing that question, but yes ... it does seem strange that there is that inconsistency."

He was not confident he personally knew the mask rules under orange either.

"Of course I've just received this news alongside the rest of New Zealand, so it is imperative that I now do that, but I've only jsut got the news."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she had not seen the brief Hipkins was given, but "I think the public of course know when you're out and about, in environments where you're in contact with a lot of people - like retail, like supermarkets, places where it's common sense to wear them - are places where we'll keep wearing them".

She said the mask rules aligned with the changes to rules for indoor venues, but she encouraged people to keep using masks where practical.

Her approach to the rules for bars and nightclubs was distanced and dispassionate.

"My recollection of those environments is they're often places where you're consuming food and drink and those are environments where of course it's not practical to wear a mask."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs