Experts praise mask mandate but say it will be a 'challenge' for Kiwis to adapt

Experts have praised the Government's decision to implement a face covering mandate but say it will be "a challenge" for Kiwis to adapt. 

Jacinda Ardern announced the new rule on Monday afternoon which will see face coverings required on all public transport and for ride-sharing at alert levels 2, 3 and 4 from Monday, August 31.

"This isn't a decision we took lightly, but we know masks protect you and the people around you. They limit the chance of COVID-19 spreading in places that it is often harder to distance yourself to trace people," Ardern said.

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says the rule is "a huge advance".

"Not only do they reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and other viruses, but it also means there is potential to fully occupy buses and aircrafts so there aren't empty spaces between people. 

"They can actually substitute for a high level of physical distancing. So this really benefits health but it also means we can use our transport far more efficiently."

But he thinks the implementation of masks "will be a challenge" for Kiwis.

"We are not used to them. I've been trying to wear mine for the last few months and I've been getting the hang of it but it takes a little while," Professor Baker said.

"I think we are getting there and we do need to integrate them into our alert level system properly so that people are in no doubt which situations we should use masks in."

He says crowded social events, workplaces, secondary schools, and crowded shopping areas are places where masks have an important role in protection.

University of Otago senior lecturer in primary health care Lesley Gray said it's understandable some people will be nervous about wearing face masks in public. 

"Aotearoa has gone from 'whoa to go' on mask wearing in just a few short weeks. I think the evidence for masking is becoming better understood and I think the right decision was made today about mandating mask wearing on public transport for level 2 and above, especially as we all want to see Auckland move out of level 3 as soon as appropriate," she said.

Gray says wearing masks will be a bit weird for many Kiwis.

She says to become more comfortable wearing masks, people should try showing individuality with different designs and patterns.

"Now is the time for Aotearoa to make mask wearing on public transport a routine thing at level 2 and above. We need to get over our embarrassment and start appreciating everyone's unique mask identity (and not forgetting good hand hygiene and physical distancing where possible)."

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said he agrees with the mandate and says everyone now has a responsibility to follow the rules.

"Wearing a face covering is an effective measure to help stop the spread of COVID-19," he said.

"Everything we can do in the fight against this disease makes a difference, and I believe the mandatory wearing of masks on public transport is sensible given our recent experience."

AT chief executive Shane Ellison added that it's important for Aucklanders to know that public transport is still okay to use for permitted travel despite the recent cases.

"We have already stepped up the level of cleaning on all services with regular steam cleans now in place and now the Government's decision to make face masks mandatory will only make public transport safer," he said.

Ellison is urging public transport users to register their Hop cards and ensure contact details are up to date should contact tracing be required.