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Tighter mask rules for Omicron – Expert Reaction

Cabinet has decided to strengthen mask requirements at the Covid-19 red setting, requiring surgical or N95 masks for vaccine-mandated workers.

This includes all staff at cafés and gyms that require vaccine passes, and police, border workers and teachers. At red, masks must now be worn at food and drink businesses, and close-contact businesses. Medical masks aren’t required for the public – but scarves and bandannas are out in favour of “actual masks” in places like cafés and gyms. The government also signalled a boost to testing capacity, including PCR and rapid antigen tests.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the news.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Senior Lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“A number of announcements were made today relating to the emerging Omicron outbreak in Aotearoa New Zealand after the whole country was shifted into the Red Traffic Light System setting at 11:59pm Sunday 23rd January 2022, in response to recently confirmed Omicron cases in the community. It was indicated we’d need to prepare to stay at the Red setting for some weeks at least – with the index case linked to the border yet to be identified.

“Amongst other announcements including increasing PCR testing capacity, RAT supply availability and supply scheduling, specific changes and updates to the mask mandates under the Red setting were outlined as part of the response to try and slow down Omicron’s spread within our communities.

“This included the news that face coverings must now consist of actual masks that cover the nose and mouth properly, meaning scarves, bandanas or T-shirts or other pieces of clothing pulled up over the face will not be suitable. Guidance provided by the Director General of Health indicated that medical grade surgical masks or 3 layer cloth masks, or even a combination of these could be utilised.

“Medical-grade masks must also now be used by workers at businesses serving food and drink, and cloth or medical masks by customers in these venues including when getting up to use the bathroom for example. In addition, children would also need to wear masks on school transport and on school trips. These changes will come into effect in 9 days’ time with the Ministry of Health providing further guidance on masks.

“An update on delivered boosters was also provided, with 60% of the eligible population in Aotearoa New Zealand having received theirs already.

“The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine booster gives strong immune protection against Omicron and must continue to be rolled out as quickly as possible with the appropriate prioritisation and delivery taking into account our most vulnerable.

“Importantly many people in Aotearoa New Zealand will be unable to receive their COVID-19 vaccine booster until February based on the 4-month gap and settings and arrangements of the original vaccine rollout in 2021.

“An equity focus that reduces barriers and builds trust for people and with appropriate priority given, will help people access the help and services they need at this time and avoid our hospitals becoming overwhelmed as they have in other countries.

“Please stay safe and keep others around you safe as well and be prepared for the possibility of isolation in the home setting with a plan, a medical kit and a buddy for support. There is still work to do – by getting vaccinated, boosted, tested, following the rules and guidelines, and reaching out to help others do the same.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Emeritus Innes Asher, Department of Paediatrics, Child and Youth Health, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland, comments:

“New Zealanders know that some families in poverty cannot afford masks and other public health measures. They cannot afford food.

“Also, it is children in the deepest poverty who are the worst affected by Covid-19.

“Government needs to immediately: 1) Bring forward the planned 1 April 2022 benefit increases, and 2) End the cruel and damaging policy of denying families on benefits the $72.50 per week payment that is given for children in low-income families not on benefits (as a tax credit within Working for Families).”

No conflict of interest declared. Note: Professor Asher is a children’s health spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action Group.

Associate Professor Arindam Basu, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, School of Health Sciences, University of Canterbury, comments:

“Both of today’s decisions – the mandate on surgical masks for workers and rapid antigen tests – are very welcome moves and much needed. I wish these decisions were made earlier.


“Instead of cloth masks, the use of disposable masks, fitted properly and wearing them everywhere, will significantly improve ‘source control’, that is, impeding virus shedding from the mouth and nasal cavity. The point here to emphasise is that they should be worn in a way to cover the nose and mouth. While there is a lead time of nine days, I’d say get into the habit now.


“It is also good to see the emphasis on rapid antigen or lateral flow tests. A point to remember is that for asymptomatic but affected individuals and in schools/workplace settings, these tests can be useful, particularly in our country where we do not have high caseloads yet, so the risk of false positives is so far low.

“If these tests turn out to be positive, then they provide very valuable information; however, the caveat is that a negative test does not confirm the absence of COVID-19 infection and hence the person needs to keep an eye on any signs and symptoms, and get tested with a PCR test.

“Both of these moves will significantly cut down transmission of COVID-19.”

No conflict of interest.