New Zealand needs to urgently look at wearing masks in public - expert

One of New Zealand's leading experts on the spread of COVID-19 says we need to urgently look at wearing masks in public.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is yet to make a recommendation on wearing cloth masks but Germany's decided to do it - and epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says New Zealand should consider it too.

Some New Zealanders have already made up their minds about wearing masks in busy public areas.

"I think it just makes good sense to have that precaution," Auckland resident Sue Collins told Newshub.

"I'll do anything," said Phil Parsonage, another resident. "I've got the gloves and the mask. Why wouldn't you?" 

Germany has just made masks in public settings like public transport and supermarkets compulsory, following Austria and the Czech Republic and already well-entrenched use in parts of Asia. 

"The countries that are succeeding are in Asia, where mask use is a very established cultural behaviour - and I think we need to look at it for New Zealand," Prof Baker told Newshub.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfied said the Ministry of Health was not recommending people use face masks routinely.

"We don't think it is an important part of our overall measures."

Mask advocates say if we don't act, we could swiftly find ourselves back at alert level 4.

"We can't afford to have a silent spread and a sudden surge in a couple of weeks time," Dr Sophie Febery told Newshub.

A Nature Medicine study did "not detect any virus in respiratory droplets" in those wearing surgical masks, and the British Medical Journal found even cloth masks helped. 

In conclusion, it said: "In the face of a pandemic the search for perfect evidence may be the enemy of good policy. As with parachutes for jumping out of aeroplanes, it is time to act without waiting for randomised controlled trial evidence."

Prof Baker said the evidence has become very strong.

"It really is an intervention we need to look at very seriously and very quickly."

The WHO, which New Zealand's Health Ministry has followed on the issue, is still saying wholesale use of masks in public isn't needed. 

"Masks should only be used by healthcare workers, caretakers or by people who are sick," said Dr April Baller of the WHO health emergencies programme.

Part of the WHO's reluctance to make a stand on masks is that it's worried the public using medical masks could exhaust supplies for the medical frontline - but what about cloth or cotton masks like bandanas?

The WHO says it's investigating this, and is waiting for evidence before recommending whether to use them or not.

Prof Baker says we shouldn't wait for the WHO. 

"That can be a bit slow and bureaucratic," he said. 

People who want to join the mask movement and don't want to feel shackled by the WHO, the advice is - wash hands before putting it on avoid touching it and make sure it covers your mouth and nose.

The idea of "mass mask" use in public relates to use of non-medical face masks, like cotton or cloth masks. A research paper posted on the Otago University Department Department of Public Health by Dr Sophie Febery and Dr Ling Chan, says New Zealand is making progress towards its elimination goal, but says as restrictions are eased, caution is required. The research says, "we need to consider all control options, even if the evidence is only suggestive. Mass mask use is one of these options and fortunately it is relatively low cost".

Click here to read more about the research.