Coronavirus: The Ministry of Health's current verdict on face masks during COVID-19 pandemic

If you want to wear a face mask, you should - if you don't want to wear a mask, that's also okay, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield reiterated during Thursday's daily COVID-19 update.

The confusion over whether to wear one or not stems from a number of countries making the use of masks mandatory in public for the duration of the pandemic, a move New Zealand has yet to implement. Germany is the latest country to make face masks compulsory outside the home.

Auckland Transport also issued a statement encouraging commuters to wear a mask when travelling on the city's buses and trains under alert level 3, which becomes effective as of 11:59pm on Monday, April 27.

However, Dr Bloomfield says the Ministry of Health's advice on masks has not changed.

"At this point we're not recommending people use face masks routinely, we don't think it's an important part of our overall measures - the most parts are the physical distancing, hygiene and maintaining the bubbles, that's the really critical thing," he said in response to a reporter's question on Thursday.

"This morning myself and my colleagues were on a call with our British counterparts to share experiences and this was one of the issues raised. Like us, they are carefully watching the evidence and as their chief medical officer has said, you can find very high-level specialists on both sides of the argument. If people want to wear a mask, they should, [but] they should know how to use it. But at this point there is any indication for routine use of masks in public."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also added that wearing a mask on public transport is not a substitute for social distancing. 

"When it comes to public transport, we still ask people to keep their distance, keep seats free, sit further back from other people if you're able - the basic measures we're asking people to maintain throughout the alert levels," she said.

Dr Bloomfield said at this point in time, the Ministry of Health has no issue with New Zealanders who want to err on the side of caution and don a mask in public - but it's important wearers are knowledgeable of the disadvantages as well as the possible benefits. 

"It's very important that you keep your hands away from your nose and mouth [when putting on the mask] and they usually hook behind the ears. The challenge is we tend to unconsciously put our hands up to our face and if you're not used to wearing a mask, like spending day after day in an operating theatre, the tendency is then to keep putting your hands to your face," he explained.

"When the mask is wet, it can transmit viruses, including COVID-19. The key point here is meticulous hand hygiene and not going out if you're unwell."

Three new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in New Zealand on Thursday, as well as two additional deaths - a woman in her 60s in Dunedin and a Rosewood Rest Home resident, a man in his 70s, in Christchurch. The country's death toll now stands at 16. However, the overall number of confirmed and probable cases remains at Wednesday's total - 1451 - as three cases linked to the Greg Mortimer Cruise Ship may come under Uruguay's case total as the patients' initial testing was carried out there instead of New Zealand.