Christopher Luxon calls for clarity over COVID rules as cases jump higher

National leader Christopher Luxon has again called the current traffic light system "just way too complex and complicated" and said New Zealanders need clarity around where to wear masks.

Daily COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalisations are shooting up as the BA.5 Omicron subvariant takes hold in New Zealand, adding pressure to a health system already strained by the return of influenza as well as staff shortages.

New Zealand's currently at the 'orange' level of the COVID Protection Framework, or traffic light system. That means masks are required in some environments, like retail or on public transport, but there are no gathering limits like at 'red'.

Despite the jump in cases, the Government hasn't made any changes to the settings. The Prime Minister says imposing gathering limits wouldn't make a "marked difference" as many cases are from the older population less likely to be attending large events. Instead, she's stressed the need for mask-use, people to follow isolation requirements and vaccination.

Luxon told reporters on Monday that the current traffic light system is "just way too complex and complicated" and that people haven't been "paying much attention to it at all". 

"What New Zealand desperately needs is a clear set of rules around some sensible places to have masking. Certainly, we want to be able to have isolation. I think we can have tests to work so that more people can get back to work."

Currently, people with COVID-19 and their household contacts must self-isolate for seven days. The Close Contact Exemption Scheme allows workers registered at critical services who are household contacts to return to work if they are asymptomatic and return negative tests.

The National Party leader went on to say the Government should be investing money it is currently spending on health reforms into frontline services and adjusting immigration settings to allow more nurses into the country to take pressure off the system. 

Asked what National's rules around mask-use would be, Luxon said he would be guided "by what's changing in the risk environment". 

"If we think the risk is changing, well, let's get really clear about how it is. Then I think we need to take the health advice and be very precise about what would be relevant and what's not relevant," he said.

"I am not the health professional and that's why I want to be listening very carefully to that health advice. We follow the science and we follow the health advice."

He wants a "dispassionate risk assessment" of what's changing and for that to be clearly communicated to Kiwis. 

"But complicating it with a traffic light system which is just about randomly applied isn't the right way to go about it. If we think we need to change the masking rules and we agree that it's the right thing to do and the health advice is saying let's do it, we should certainly look into that."

"If we think the risk is changing, well, let's get really clear about how it is."
"If we think the risk is changing, well, let's get really clear about how it is." Photo credit: Newshub.

Luxon has just returned to New Zealand from a tour of Singapore, Ireland and the United Kingdom, where he has been to develop policy.

He said the "rest of the world is moving on" when it comes to COVID.

"There wasn't a single COVID conversation I had while I was in Ireland with any particular political leader or official or any organisation that I met with. It was just pretty simple, they're moving on."

Cases are on the up in other parts of the world where the BA.5 subvariant is growing dominant. However, those in the northern hemisphere aren't having to contend with winter illnesses as New Zealand is. 

Speaking to media on Monday morning, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reiterated "three things" that she says will make a "huge difference" if they are followed through on. 

"We have a number of measures that other countries don't continue to use and they are, of course, mask-use, the fact that we continue to isolate cases and their family members and, of course, we are seeking those over 50 to get their booster.

She said it was important that even if people have had COVID-19 before that they continue to wear a mask as "we know that you can also suffer reinfection".

In its latest update on Monday, the Ministry of Health said the increase in hospitalisations "emphasises the importance of everybody doing the basics well". 

"In particular, people who are unwell should stay home, take a rapid antigen test (RAT) and upload the result on MyCovidRecord, and isolate if positive or while still symptomatic. 

"Everyone should use a mask where required and especially where they may be in contact with vulnerable people - a good rule of thumb is to use a mask in all indoor places outside of your home."

Last week, COVID-19 Response Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall told the Health Select Committee that the traffic light system was being kept under review with the possibility of tweaks.

"At this setting in orange, we have available the most effective prevention methods which are masks and vaccines... I want to make it very clear that our emphasis is on these sorts of measures that we currently have in place in orange and looking comprehensively at whether they can be improved."