Jacinda Ardern confident about containing COVID-19 cases under alert level 1 with new mask rules

The Prime Minister is confident about containing new cases of COVID-19 under alert level 1 thanks to new rules making masks mandatory on Auckland public transport and regional flights. 

Mask use on regional flights and public transport was already mandatory at alert level 2 and above. The Government has now extended it to all regional flights and public transport in Auckland under level 1. 

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. 

It comes after a new community case of COVID-19 was discovered in Auckland last week - an Auckland University of Technology (AUT) student whose case is epidemiologically linked to a Defence Worker at a managed isolation facility. 

Announcing the new mask rules on Monday, Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand remains in a unique position globally with economic and personal freedoms under alert level 1 while other countries see cases of COVID-19 surge. 

"The case tally is increasing by around 500,000 a day. Many countries are entering lockdowns and more and more New Zealanders understandably want to return to New Zealand, increasing demand for our managed isolation facilities," Ardern said. 

"Despite robust infection and control measures, regular testing and daily health checks, no system is full-proof, and transmission can occur as it has in recent cases even without an obvious exposure event. 

"It all goes to show how tricky the virus is, and while we have largely eliminated it from the community with more COVID in the world and arriving at our border, it is Cabinet's view that we need to continually check and refresh our settings."

Ardern said the case of COVID-19 last week shows how the Government "can manage and contain cases within level 1 settings meaning we don't necessarily have to move to levels 2 and 3 whenever new cases appear". 

However, she said in order to manage small numbers of cases at level 1, "we believe that we need additional precautions in place" and the additional precautions "are a small price to pay to maintain the economic and social freedoms we have at level 1".

Ardern added, "All year we have made changes to our settings as we learn more about the virus and the effectiveness of our response. Today's changes are just the latest tweaks to our system."

Ardern said she had no regrets about not acting on mandating masks sooner. 

"One of the reasons we're moving now is because we're seeing more and more our ability to actually manage these known outbreaks connected to quarantine facilities at a level 1 environment," she said. 

"Previously, of course, we do already have compulsory mask use at level 2. Our view is, while we get better at managing these situations at level 1, we need to bring those precautionary approaches with us."

She described the new rules as another line of defence.

"So why wouldn't we use that? Particularly in environments like buses where it's harder to contact trace people. We've always encouraged ongoing mask use on planes and public transport... but we want to see that usage enhanced, so that's why we're moving to mandating."

Ardern revealed that the Ministry of Health advised the Government to mandate mask use at alert level 1 temporarily after a port worker tested positive for COVID-19 in October. 

"At that time, the Ministry of Health suggested bringing in short-term mask use on public transport and flights," Ardern said. 

"A short-term use in that way wouldn't necessarily carry that preventative approach. It would perhaps be unnecessarily confusing, and so we wanted to make a decision around longer-term use. We've done that as a Cabinet now and believe it makes sense."

Ardern also talked about why the Government chose to mandate mask use on all regional flights but not public transport across the country. 

"For flights, you can see of course that because of the movements in and out of Auckland it is much, much simpler if we just have a blanket provision... because often you can have someone who's come out of Auckland who's zigzagging across the country and it would be inconsistent to only have them wear a mask on one flight but not their connecting flight," she said. 

"For the rest of the country with bus use, we will consider that. For us, the immediate response that made very clear sense for us given high use of public transport and often the congestion of public transport in Auckland - but also that this is one of the areas where we have more of a border workforce living - it makes very good sense for us to do that."

The Wellington Chamber of Commerce is supporting calls for the mandatory mask provisions to go further.

"Our business community cannot afford another lock-down. It is the small things individuals can do to keep businesses able to open and operate," said CEO John Milford. "Everything helps and the faster we can contact trace close contacts, the better we can contain any outbreak."