Coronavirus: Siouxsie Wiles begs National MPs questioning mask advice to get in touch

One of the country's leading scientists is begging the National Party to talk to experts like her if they'd like to know why health officials are now recommending Kiwis get their hands on masks.

Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland who's been a regular on TV and radio during the pandemic, says the Opposition has rejected her offers in the past, and is urging them to change their minds.

"If any National party MP has questions about COVID-19 then please get in touch," she wrote on Twitter, tagging leader Judith Collins. "I'm very happy to have a chat and explain what we know and what we don't know about the pandemic."

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield and Health Minister Chris Hipkins on Thursday urged Kiwis to have masks handy in case of another local outbreak of COVID-19, which has killed 720,000 people worldwide.

"We've seen elsewhere masks can play a role in helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when worn by the public where there are cases of community transmission," Hipkins said.

"Just as we are prepared by having food and water set aside in the event of a natural disaster, we are encouraging New Zealanders to have a supply of masks set aside at home in the event of a further COVID-19 outbreak."

"What we are doing is adding masks to our overall toolbox as part of our ambition to avoid having to go up alert levels, should they be required," added Dr Bloomfield. 

The day before, Dr Bloomfield said it was a matter of when, not if, community transmission was detected here again, despite no cases in the community in more than three months. 

Siouxsie Wiles.
Siouxsie Wiles. Photo credit: University of Auckland

National MPs are questioning why the Government and health officials chose this week to talk about the threat of community transmission and masks. 

"Why now?" former National Party leader Simon Bridges, who led Parliament's Epidemic Response Committee earlier this year, asked on The AM Show on Friday. 

"Why have Chris Hipkins and Dr Bloomfield walked out and started raising these issues? The masks thing, for example. I appreciate the evidence does change, but if you go back just three months ago when I was leading this COVID committee, Ashley Bloomfield told me almost the exact opposite of that. 

"I'm just wanting to know - we've got an election in 42 days or something - what's really going on here?"

National deputy leader Gerry Brownlee expressed similar sentiments during an interview on RNZ's Morning Report.

"Why is it now when we have 94 days now with no community transmission and apparently secure borders that they're suddenly wanting to bring this up? I think it's a bit of a squirrel running up a tree so that we're not looking at the teetering employment situation."

Applications for the wage subsidy extension close in a few weeks, and it runs out over the next couple of weeks for those who went on it early.

Brownlee said he had no problem with recommending masks, but was concerned at the "strength of the way it's being put to us".

"If we've got a secure border then we should not have any further community transmission."

In April, Dr Bloomfield said Kiwis were free to wear masks if they wanted to, but other measures - such as social distancing - were more important. Since then, there has been growing evidence the virus is airborne, and our neighbour Australia is experiencing a second wave far bigger than the first. 

The World Health Organization updated its advice on masks in early June, to recommend wearing them wherever social distancing wasn't possible. Before that, it said there wasn't evidence either way whether wearing a mask would help prevent spread of the disease. 

As late as April, the WHO doubted whether asymptomatic or presymptomatic transmission of the disease was happening - it's now considered a fact, with one study suggesting nearly half of new infections come from people who aren't yet showing symptoms. Wearing a mask can prevent people who don't realise they're infected from spreading the virus. 

Hipkins said on Thursday despite rumours, there remain no cases of community transmission in New Zealand. 

Dr Wiles said she offered to "meet with [the National] caucus and tell them everything we knew at the time about the virus and answer their questions" in March.

"They said no."

Collins is yet to publicly respond to Dr Wiles' offer. Earlier this week she praised Dr Bloomfield, crediting him with New Zealand's success to date in fighting COVID-19. She also said if elected, she would take a "zero tolerance" approach to the virus, which would "simply not be allowed in".