Coronavirus: Taxi mask rules 'absolutely illogical', make 'no sense', drivers say

Taxi drivers say a sudden rule change around mask-wearing doesn't make sense, and they're struggling to get answers from officials as to the logic behind it.

But Health Minister Chris Hipkins says the advice he got was that forcing passengers to wear masks would potentially have more negatives than positives.

Earlier this week the Ministry of Health said from Monday, under the new level 2 guidelines, everyone using public transport will have to cover their faces to help prevent the potential asymptomatic spread of COVID-19. Included in the order were buses, trains, ferries, taxis, rideshare services like Uber and flights. 

Those are the rules currently on the Ministry of Health's website, last updated on Monday. But on Thursday at the daily 1pm briefing on the Government's response to the outbreak, Hipkins said only drivers of "small passenger vehicles such as taxis or Ubers" will have to don masks - not passengers.

"To me it seems to be absolutely illogical that only a driver needs to wear a facemask," John Hart, executive director of the NZ Taxi Federation, told Newshub.

"If it's considered that the inside of a vehicle has the potential to spread the virus, then surely it must be a requirement that everyone inside a vehicle wears a mask. It just makes absolutely no sense to us that only the driver has to wear a mask." 

Masks offer some protection against contracting the virus, spread on droplets exhaled by infected people - whether they show symptoms or not. Their primary purpose is to prevent people who don't know they're infected from spreading it. 

The penalty for not wearing a mask in places where it's mandated will be an instant fine of $300, with the courts able to impose a fine of up to $1000.

"We do not have a mask-wearing culture here in New Zealand. This is going to take us all some time to get used to and so we do ask for patience and cooperation as we all get used to taking this additional protective step," Hipkins said on Thursday, also revealing a few exceptions

"What we are asking is for people to wear a mask just as you would buckle up when getting into a car."

Hipkins also said drivers would not be required to refuse entry to anyone not wearing a mask, but could request it if they felt comfortable. 

Chris Hipkins.
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty

But as the thousands of recorded breaches of lockdown restrictions show, not all Kiwis do as they're asked - even in the midst of a global pandemic that's left nearly 900,000 dead in just half a year. 

"Taxi drivers probably feel that they're being told there is a risk of the virus being spread via taxis, and if that's the case then passengers without masks must increase that risk," said Hart. 

Hipkins said while masks add a level of added protection, the "minor public health protection gains that would be made from getting people to wear masks in that setting were actually offset by the potential downsides for the operators concerned, and it would be very, very difficult for them to enforce".

"People typically, when you're getting into a taxi or an Uber, you're not sitting next to people that you don't know, other than the driver, who will be wearing a mask. 

"QR codes will be there, so we will be able to trace who's been in which taxis and which Ubers and when, and it's that smaller group size that, of course, provides the greatest protection. 

"But people are encouraged to wear masks - they just won't be mandatory in taxis and Ubers."

Auckland is set to join the rest of the country at level 2 on Monday, despite a continued outbreak of the virus. 

From Thursday next week, all public transport vehicles will have to carry QR codes so people can register their presence using the Government's COVID Tracer app. Use by passengers is not mandatory. 

The extra steps have been taken after a person tested positive after travelling on the same bus as another person who was later confirmed to have the virus.