COVID-19: Christopher Luxon laments 'very, very confusing' COVID settings, wants 'conversation' about ending health worker vaccine mandates

National's Christopher Luxon continues to claim some COVID-19 settings are "very, very confusing" for people and the focus should be on ensuring New Zealanders understand basic health measures, like masks, vaccinations and isolation requirements.

Those are the three measures Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has repeatedly stressed in recent days as actions Kiwis can take personally to protect themselves against the latest wave of COVID-19 spreading through the community.

While daily case figures continue to rise - surpassing 10,000 again on Tuesday - and hospitalisations significantly increase, the Government hasn't moved New Zealand to the 'red' traffic light setting, saying imposing gathering limits wouldn't make a "marked difference" to the situation.

Luxon on Monday called the traffic light system "complex and complicated" and said the Government should provide a "clear set of rules" around where to wear masks. The 'orange' setting sets out where masks are required, such as in retail and on public transport. 

He repeated his comments on Tuesday, saying Kiwis have been through "a number of different systems" over the past years and the "real opportunity is to just get really clear on a few basic things".

Those are ensuring Kiwis "who are vulnerable take that fourth vaccination shot", follow "sensible masking rules" that the Government should define "based on the risks that they are seeing", and keep to isolation rules.

However, he believes the fourth vaccination should be available to anyone "who wants it freely, like we see in Australia" and that the Government introduces a test-to-work scheme for people in all occupations.  

"I think those are basic things New Zealanders need to understand," Luxon said. "A lot of the 'what you can and can't do' gets very, very myopic and very, very confusing for people."

The fourth vaccination dose is currently available for anyone aged over 50, with the Ministry of Health saying it's "not yet needed by younger people who are generally healthy and do not have underlying health conditions". In Australia, it's available for those over 30.

There is also already a household contact test-to-work scheme in New Zealand. However, it is only currently available for workers at critical services.

He pointed out that in some places overseas, "there is no mask-wearing at all".
He pointed out that in some places overseas, "there is no mask-wearing at all". Photo credit: Newshub.

Asked whether he believes masks should be required in indoor areas outside of the home, Luxon said it would come down to health advice.

"The bigger point for me is rather than get into all the ins and outs of where masks can or shouldn't be worn, I want that advice to come through very, very cleanly and very, very simply from our health professionals and then we follow that advice based off the risk they are seeing."

While the 'orange' settings lay out where masks are and aren't required indoors, the Ministry of Health says that as a "general rule" people are urged to "wear a mask in public indoor settings outside the home and in poorly ventilated spaces or when it is hard to physically distance from other people". 

Luxon went on to say it was "interesting" that during a trip to Singapore, Ireland and the United Kingdom last week in "most of those places, we didn't have a single COVID conversation".

"In places like Ireland, there is no mask-wearing at all."

The National Party leader said on Monday that the "rest of the world is moving on" when it comes to COVID.

However, cases are rising in other parts of the globe where the BA.5 Omicron subvariant is taking hold. Those in the northern hemisphere - like in Ireland and the United Kingdom - aren't having to also contend with winter illnesses, like New Zealand is.

Luxon also suggested there is a "conversation to have about a pathway to ultimately removing the [health worker vaccine] mandates" considering worker shortages. 

"I think the conversation should happen to say, well actually what kinda roles can they do and what kinda support can they offer a system that is under huge pressure at the moment."

A number of groups of healthcare workers are still required to be vaccinated, including those who provide services in person. However, from last week, workers in non-public facing roles in healthcare environments no longer need to have had the shots. 

In a statement last month, COVID-19 Response Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said vaccination orders remain in place for health and disability workers as they have close interactions with people at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19. These settings are regularly reviewed.