Government quietly makes it harder to get a COVID-19 mask exemption card in bid to 'prevent misuse'

The Government has quietly made it more difficult to get a mask exemption card, with Kiwis now required to apply through a disability organisation amid concerns they were being misused.

Under all COVID-19 alert levels, masks are required to be worn in certain settings. But there are exceptions - children under the age of 12 don't have to wear a mask, nor those with illnesses, conditions or disabilities that make the wearing of one unsuitable.

For these people, the Government produced a mask exemption card which allows them not to comply with the COVID-19 requirement to wear a face covering.

However the card has been repeatedly misemployed since it was created; its easy accessibility on Government websites exploited by anti-lockdown groups like The Freedom Alliance, who printed hundreds out and issued them to Wellington commuters back in April.

Advance NZ election candidate Vikki-Lee Pomare boasted about not wearing a mask on a flight after producing an exemption card earlier this year, and told people on social media how to print and use one just as she had.

Just a week ago, a woman was caught not wearing a mask at an Auckland supermarket and allegedly produced a forged mask exemption document to a police officer.

Until as recently as August 21 - just days after the most recent COVID-19 outbreak was detected - web archives show the Unite Against COVID-19 website had a link to download a PDF of the mask exemption card from the Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA). 

Government quietly makes it harder to get a COVID-19 mask exemption card in bid to 'prevent misuse'

However this link was quietly removed at some point in the following days, with Kiwis now required to call or email the DPA directly for a copy of the card. Kiwis now have to convince the organisation they have a relevant disability or condition, or they won't be provided with one.

A spokesperson for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) says it also removed the ability to download a mask exemption card from the Ministry of Health and Disabled Persons Assembly websites.

"There's now a different process in place to ensure people qualify," they told Newshub. "The process of issuing the exemption card was strengthened to prevent against potential misuse."

The Ministry of Health says the exemption card download link on its website was removed last year. The web archive shows the DPA's was still in use in April.

The DPMC spokesperson said while there were concerns about misuse, there are genuine reasons why some people may be legally exempt from wearing a face covering.

"When New Zealand moved quickly to alert level 4, it's acknowledged some people exempt from wearing a face covering may have had trouble accessing some businesses," they said.

"Businesses are asked to be mindful that not everyone may be carrying an exemption card. People may provide other forms of proof such as a letter from their doctor or may not have evidence on them.  

"People are asked to respect others. If someone has genuine reasons for not being required to wear a face covering, they're still entitled to access alert level 4 businesses and services in the same way everyone else is."

The Ministry of Health says people are "not expected to assume the role of enforcement officer" when someone isn't wearing a mask.

"It is important to trust that others are doing the right thing. If someone does not wear a mask, they may have a legitimate reason. When near others you do not know who are not wearing a mask, keep a distance and be kind."