COVID-19: Chris Hipkins seeks to enforce masks on public transport and aircraft, mulls mandatory QR code scanning

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins is seeking to enforce mask-wearing on public transport and aircract, and is considering making it mandatory to scan QR codes to enter large events. 

Hipkins said he will take a public health order to Cabinet on Monday to make mask use mandatory on domestic flights and on public transport within the Auckland region on an ongoing basis. He will then will consider extending it to other regions. 

Hipkins said he is also considering making it mandatory for people to scan a QR code to enter businesses or events in certain circumstances such as large gatherings or at hospitality venues where social distancing isn't possible. 

"We're always reviewing our settings. We last reviewed our settings around mask use as a result of the Auckland August cluster that we dealt with. When we stepped down the alert levels we did consider mask use at that time," Hipkins told reporters on Friday. 

"There's a more immediate need around Auckland and plane travel obviously. Bearing in mind, we're a very mobile country - people get around quite a lot and so we want to contain risk as much as we possibly can."

It comes the day after a new case of COVID-19 was discovered in the community in Auckland, sparking speculation that the city was destined for another lockdown scenario. 

But Hipkins confirmed on Friday that Auckland will remain under alert level 1 settings because no further cases have been detected and the source of the community case - a student at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) - had been traced to a managed isolation worker. 

To prevent any potential spread of the virus, Hipkins is encouraging Aucklanders to wear masks on public transport over the weekend until the Government makes it mandatory. 

Mask use is currently only mandatory on public transport at alert levels 2, 3 and 4 - although, it is encouraged under level 1. A mask or face covering can help stop infectious droplets spreading when a person speaks, laughs, coughs or sneezes. 

Hipkins said while Auckland will be the focus of the health order, the Government will consider whether it should be extended to any cities or areas where there are managed isolation facilities or airports. 

"Those things will be considered over the next week or so but I'm just making the announcement about what I'm recommending for Auckland and for plane travel. I'll be taking that directly to Cabinet on Monday. We will be considering those other issues as well but I haven't got a specific timeframe on that yet," Hipkins said. 

"We are asking people to do that now, although I do want to be clear that's not a legal requirement at this point because until an order is in place it is not a legal requirement. But, we're asking people to do that now and the feedback we're had from the airlines is they will work to ensure people have the supply of masks where they need it.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty

"An exact commencement date for the order will be announced after Cabinet on Monday once we've made those final decisions but it will be in the next week."

Hipkins said there has been a "good degree of goodwill towards" mask use so far and he "wouldn't be asking people to wear masks over the weekend" if he didn't think it was urgent. 

"If they are socialising with people they don't know a very sensible thing to do is to wear a mask in an abundance of caution. It keeps everybody safe."

As for QR code scanning, the Government has already made it mandatory for businesses to provide them so that customers can keep a record of their whereabouts on the COVID Tracer App. 

But the Government does not enforce use of the app - it only ensures that businesses provide the QR codes. Hipkins said he is now considering forcing people to scan QR codes at large events or hospitality venues to make contact tracing easier for officials. 

The Ministry of Health says less than one in six of the 2.3 million users registered with the app are using it daily. Officials are urging New Zealanders to use it more because "we can't afford to get complacent". 

A mask or face covering can help stop infectious droplets spreading when a person speaks, laughs, coughs or sneezes.
A mask or face covering can help stop infectious droplets spreading when a person speaks, laughs, coughs or sneezes. Photo credit: Facebook / Chris Hipkins

 "COVID-19 continues to rage around the globe and if we're to continue to enjoy the very fortunate position that we find ourselves in here in New Zealand, we all need to continue to take action to keep ourselves and to keep others safe," Hipkins said.  

The last time community cases were discovered in Auckland in August, the Government immediately enforced an alert level 3 lockdown in the city, while the rest of the country was shifted to alert level 2 to be safe.  

Hipkins said it wasn't necessary this time because only one case has been discovered, and the Government has been working on strengthening testing, contact tracing and case investigation processes.

"We want to have further escalation of alert levels the last port of call for us," he said.

"We are at alert level 1. What we have indicated and we have set it out is where we think the risk lies. This is not the level of risk at this point that would trigger a higher alert level but we are asking people to take extra precautionary measures like mask-wearing on public transport and large public events."