COVID-19: Kiwis with disabilities 'confronted, harassed' for not wearing mask now scared to access essential services - Ministry of Health

Government agencies are urging Kiwis to "trust others are doing the right thing" even if they're not wearing a mask, revealing people with disabilities and health conditions are being harangued in public for going out without one on.

The Ministry of Health told Newshub members of this community, many of whom are exempt from wearing a mask at any COVID-19 alert level because they are unable to for health reasons, are being "confronted and harassed" when accessing essential services.

They say it's leaving some too scared to go out in public for fear of the response of over-zealous Kiwis.

"This is unacceptable," the ministry spokesperson said. "It is important to trust that others are doing the right thing. If someone does not wear a mask, they may have a legitimate reason.

"When near others you do not know who are not wearing a mask, keep a distance and be kind. You are not expected to assume the role of enforcement officer."

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) reiterated this message, saying while there were concerns about people misusing mask exemption cards, there are "genuine reasons" why some people may not be sporting a face covering.

"When New Zealand moved quickly to alert level 4, it's acknowledged some people exempt from wearing a face covering may have had trouble accessing some businesses," a DMPC spokesperson said.

"Businesses are asked to be mindful that not everyone may be carrying an exemption card. People may provide other forms of proof such as a letter from their doctor or may not have evidence on them.  

"People are asked to respect others. If someone has genuine reasons for not being required to wear a face covering, they're still entitled to access alert level 4 businesses and services in the same way everyone else is."

The Health and Disability Commissioner (HDC) told Newshub it has received four complaints in the last month from people concerned about requirements to wear face coverings in certain public settings.

Two of these related to supermarkets, and two involved health and disability services.

"We all need to understand that some people who have disabilities or health conditions may not be able to wear a face covering safely or comfortably, and there are exemptions in place," a spokesperson for the HDC said.

"We urge health and disability services to be mindful of this, and work with their patients to ensure they still have access to the care they need.

"People with disabilities may be particularly vulnerable during this period of COVID-19 restrictions and it is vital that they have access to health and disability services that are adapted to their needs.

"We're paying close attention to people's concerns as they bring them to our attention and will work with providers to resolve them in the most appropriate way."

It comes after the Government quietly made it more difficult to get a mask exemption card, citing concerns about their potential misuse.

The Unite Against COVID-19, Ministry of Health and Disability Persons Assembly websites all used to have links to download a PDF of the cards, but they have now been removed.