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Mandatory masking on flights and Auckland’s public transport – Expert Reaction

Cabinet has decided to make mask-wearing mandatory on Auckland’s public transport, while travelling in and out of the city, and on all domestic flights.

Mask-wearing has so far only been required on planes and public transport at level 2 and above. Face coverings will now be required on public transport at all alert levels in Auckland, and on domestic flights throughout the country from Thursday morning. Children under 12 years old will be exempt, as will people with certain health conditions.

The SMC asked experts to comment on this decision.

Professor Nick Wilson, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, comments:

“Mandated mask wearing is a key control measure for the COVID-19 pandemic and it is especially needed since the NZ is experiencing regular border control failures (actually 8 border failures since early August, around one every two weeks). We know that indoor environments favour the spread of COVID-19 and there have been outbreaks from virus transmission on buses and in aircraft internationally. There was very good uptake of masks by New Zealanders in response to the Auckland August outbreak – but this success was not maintained when it was no longer mandatory.

“In an updated report on masks from last week, the Centers of Disease Control in America states that mask use also protects the wearer from becoming infected – as well as protecting the people around them if they are infected. It also states that: “Adopting universal masking policies can help avert future lockdowns, especially if combined with other non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, hand hygiene, and adequate ventilation.”

“It is disappointing however, that the NZ Government is just requiring mask use on public transport in Auckland. It should be nationwide given that many MIQ facilities are outside of Auckland (and there have been recent border control failures associated with a MIQ facility in Christchurch).

“NZ also needs to upgrade its border defences as per a proposed traffic light system for risk-assessing countries from which NZ gets traveller arrivals (as we have recently described). There also needs to be mandatory scanning-in using the Government’s NZ COVID Tracer App for people entering high-risk indoor public places (to facilitate contact tracing if an outbreak occurs). Work is also needed to rapidly progress other digital technologies to facilitate contact tracing (including adding Bluetooth functionality to the current COVID Tracer App as appears to be proceeding, and development of the COVID Card for people without smartphones).”

No conflict of interest

Lesley Gray, Senior Lecturer, Department of Primary Health Care & General Practice, University of Otago, comments:

“The decision of Cabinet to consider mandatory mask wearing on Public transport in Auckland and on all domestic flights is welcome news. I was on a flight myself this morning from Wellington to Nelson and there was a marked increase of mask users both in the terminal and on the flight. I admit it was a little embarrassing to mask up, and it did feel a little weird. But – as more people were wearing them on my flight I did not feel like the odd one out and soon got used to it. Each time I mask up does get easier.

“What I have noticed in relation to mask wearing is that ‘mask etiquette’ is a little hit and miss. I have seen many people pop their mask down under their chin to chat. I am not seeing anyone wearing clear masks, so for anyone that is hard of hearing, deaf or lip reads this brings about new challenges in communication. I also saw at least two people this morning wearing their paper masks ‘inside out’ with the white side outside. The coloured side (usually blue or green) is the side that faces out. Masks also have one edge that is stiffer – this is meant to go over the nose so you can shape to fit the nose area.”

Conflict of interest statement: Lesley Gray recently completed an HRC/MoH Rapid Response grant (HRC 20/990).

Dr Joel Rindelaub, Aerosol Chemist, University of Auckland, comments:

“Masks use is one way to combat the spread of SARS-CoV-2, along with hygiene and distancing protocols. However, it is important to remember that a mask will not be a perfect tool against the virus, especially the homemade cloth varieties. Despite this, meta-analysis data indicate that widespread mask use may be effective in reducing SARS-CoV-2 transmission.

“There is no evidence that suggests wearing masks will negatively affect your health. It is important to remember proper use though. Make sure there is a tight seal around your mouth and nose. Since infection through nasal cells is thought to be a key pathway for the virus, always ensure the nose is covered. Also, never touch the outside of the mask. If the mask worked properly, it has potentially collected the virus on its outside. To be safe, always wash your hands after handling your mask.

“We need to de-stigmatise the use of masks so that people are comfortable wearing them in public settings. Masks are cool. Wearing one shows that you care about the people around you.

“But mask use is just one piece of cheese on the sandwich of virus prevention. Another useful but often overlooked ingredient is the ‘bread’ of indoor air quality. You don’t want to breathe old, stale air in a room the same way you don’t want to eat old, stale bread on your sandwich. Indoor areas are high risk for infection and super spreader events because of poor air ventilation compared to outdoor environments. We need to better address air circulation and air filtration strategies as another crucial piece in the fight against SARS-CoV-2.”

No conflict of interest

Associate Professor Elspeth Tilley, School of English and Media Studies, Massey University, comments:

“Ethical action at its most blunt means reducing harm and increasing benefit to the greatest number of people. Keeping us from yo-yoing in and out of levels means we can enjoy benefits that most of the rest of the world currently cannot. These include attending important social and cultural gatherings with other people (funerals, for example) and sustaining economic activity. This reduces harm and increases benefit for New Zealanders.

“Every time we even look like possibly going up a level, many people and businesses experience the stress of that possibility and are anxious about the ways it could impact them. Anything we can do to provide more certainty and stability around staying at Level 1 reduces that stress, so is reducing harm.

“Ethics is often about doing the ‘hard thing’ as an individual to achieve the ‘right thing’ for the wider community. It may be an inconvenience to mask up on public transport and planes, but it’s a small thing we can do on behalf of the whole country.

“Of course there will be some exceptional circumstances where individuals may experience individual harm from mask wearing (for example, people with certain health conditions), but as with the previous masking orders there are provisions to manage those exceptions. The rest of us can do our bit, ethically speaking, to help maintain the widely beneficial situation of being in Level 1, by masking when and where mandated.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I have previously been part of research teams that have received funding from MoH and HRC on health communication topics.”