14 Jul 2022

Masks need to be mandated in most indoor settings to prevent really grim winter - Baker

7:25 pm on 14 July 2022

A prominent epidemiologist is calling for much wider mask mandates, saying the roll-out of free masks, while positive, will make a "fairly small" difference to the Covid-19 outbreak.

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker

Professor Michael Baker says New Zealand needs to shift to being a mask-using country Photo: University of Otago Wellington / Luke Pilkinton-Ching​

The government this afternoon announced masks and rapid antigen tests would be made freely available while the country battled a resurgence of Covid-19 and other winter illnesses.

University of Otago's Professor Michael Baker told RNZ much more was required to prevent the worst outcomes of a "really grim winter".

"We are missing the fundamental measure to stop sharing this virus widely and that is universal mask use indoors."

Baker said New Zealand needed to shift to becoming a "mask-using society", which he believed could be achieved only through mandating their use in most indoor environments.

"The very ad hoc approach to requiring mask use is eroding the social licence for them," Baker said.

"You go to one social event, and everyone's wearing a mask, and so you feel comfortable. Next day, you go to a different one, and no one's wearing a mask, except you, and that feels a bit odd. We need to get rid of those inconsistencies."

Baker said he believed the government had opted for a greater focus on personal responsibility for fear of a potential political backlash.

"Unfortunately, we've politicised this issue too much and politics is starting to take over from the science."

But, speaking to Checkpoint, Covid-19 Response Minister Ayesha Verrall said it was "not simple" to implement mask mandates.

"It impacts the running of many businesses and we need people to take a pragmatic approach to this."

Verrall said, however, she would encourage everyone to wear a mask while indoors as much as possible.

She rejected the suggestion the government's approach to tackling rising Covid-19 cases was based on politics over health.

She would not say if the predicted peak of 1200 hospitalisations a day would be a crisis, but said the government was doing everything it could to avoid the scenario playing out.

"I think it's really important we respond to the very real pressures in our health system, and I've been in close contact with healthcare workers, as well as following the statistics we get to make sure we know what the facts are, and that we respond to them and fix the problems that exist.

"A lot of what we set out today is designed to do that."

Green Party MP Teanau Tuiono said today's development was "about time", but he would have liked to see masks made mandatory in schools.

"We're all over it, we're all tired... but it's just no excuse to drop the ball because here's the thing: there are people still in hospital, people dying from Covid.

"The numbers are going up and we are in the middle of winter, so what we need here is that leadership."

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