Face masks mandatory on Auckland public transport and regional flights: Who is exempt from the new rules?

The Government is making face masks mandatory from Thursday, November 19, on public transport in Auckland and on all regional flights across New Zealand.

But there will be some exemptions. Children and young people travelling to and from school are exempt from face covering requirements on school buses and other school transport.

The rules will apply to everyone over the age of 12 travelling on public transport in and out of Auckland. The drivers of small passenger service vehicles in Auckland, such as taxis and app-based ride services, will have to wear them too, but not their passengers.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Monday he will be issuing a health order under the COVID-19 Response Act to bring in the new law. It will come into force at 11.59pm on Wednesday, November 18.

"Adding mask wearing to the toolbox of measures against the virus is a sensible precaution and the time is right to make the move," Hipkins said.

"As we learn more about the virus and continue to strengthen our test, trace and isolate processes and border measures, modelling is now telling us that we're at the stage of having the toolset that means we're better able to respond to community cases with fewer restrictions.

"That's not to say that won't happen. But we're in a much better position to avoid blunt and costly lockdowns by being able to control the spread of the virus with a flexible mix of measures that best fit the situation.

"In this light, and taking all factors into account, we've determined that now is the right time to make mask use mandatory in these situations. It will provide another line of defence, is a low-cost and practical option and presents a minor inconvenience by comparison."

Hipkins signalled the changes last week after an Auckland University of Technology (AUT) student tested positive for COVID-19. The student revealed she continued working at her Auckland CBD retail job while she was symptomatic, sparking fears the virus could have spread through the city.

The Ministry of Health was able to trace the case of COVID-19 to another case linked to a managed isolation facility. Hipkins subsequently confirmed Auckland would remain under alert level 1. But he said he would seek to mandate masks on public transport in Auckland and regional flights as a precaution.

Hipkins said the Government is seeking further advice from officials about extending face covering requirements for other centres and introducing mandatory scanning of QR codes in some high risk situations where contact tracing is challenging. 

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff is welcoming the Government's decision.

"Widespread wearing of masks is one way that we can reduce the chances of further community transmission of COVID-19 and avoid having to go back into lockdown," he said.

"Wearing a mask while on public transport will soon be compulsory and should be part of everyone's standard practice, alongside not going to work when you have cold or flu-like symptoms, regular handwashing, cough/sneeze etiquette and keeping track of your location."

Hipkins said the Government will take an 'educate and encourage' approach to the new rules.

 "Police can enforce the new rules - but this will be a last resort. Bus drivers and other transport workers will not be responsible for enforcing the new requirement," he said.

"Decisions to introduce mandatory measures are not taken lightly. They are based on expert advice from a range of scientific and public health disciplines and seek to strike the right balance between maximum efficacy and practicality.

"Combatting COVID-19 requires a sustained effort from all New Zealanders and there are simple actions everyone can take to keep us safe.

"It's important we all still follow good hygiene such as handwashing, cough and sneeze etiquette and staying home when sick. Scanning QR codes continues to be a key tool for contact tracing."