Jacinda Ardern snapped maskless may 'indicate that's okay behaviour', photo-ops should model good mask-use, experts say

The Prime Minister sharing an image of herself not wearing a mask indoors with a crowd could "indicate that's an okay behaviour" to her followers, a political scientist says, while an aerosol chemist believes any photo-op should be used to model "proper mask etiquette".

Criticism has been levelled at an image shared by Jacinda Ardern to her social media accounts on Tuesday showing the Prime Minister, the Governor-General, other MPs, and most youth parliamentarians not wearing masks while posing for a picture. 

The photograph was taken indoors, less than a week after the Government pleaded with Kiwis to mask-up in the face of surging COVID-19 cases. More than 10,000 infections were reported on Tuesday, with the Ministry of Health urging people to "wear a mask in public indoor settings outside the home".

Current 'orange' light settings require mask-use in some indoor settings, like retail, public transport and in government buildings. Unconnected to the PM's photo, Speaker Trevor Mallard on Tuesday emailed parliamentary staffers reminding them of the need to wear face coverings on the precinct.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister said Ardern had been wearing a mask for the rest of Tuesday, but briefly removed it for the photo at the request of the photographer. Other images shared by Ardern show her wearing a mask.

Dr Lara Greaves, a political scientist at the University of Auckland, said people's reaction to the image may depend on whether they support Kiwis being encouraged to take personal responsibility with mask-use, or if they back collective responsibility.

"I think that [Ardern] going maskless for that one photo probably reflects a broader ideology and the position of the Government now, which seems to be more around individual responsibility and balance your individual risk and your own decision making," Dr Greaves told Newshub.

It may signal to communities with disabilities and chronic conditions that the Government is focused on "individual risks" and won't be pushing people to wear masks or "crack down on that".

The Government hasn't increased COVID restrictions in New Zealand despite rising cases and hospitalisations, saying 'red' settings wouldn't make a significant difference. Instead, the Government has made masks more accessible and stressed the need to wear them. 

Dr Greaves said while many New Zealanders follow the news media, and the health experts who voice their views in it, others only see what is promoted on social media. 

Ardern isn't just the Prime Minister, but "to some extent a social media influencer of sorts", Dr Greaves said. The Labour leader has 1.7 million international followers on Instagram and 1.9 million on Facebook.

"I think that is where there is a broader responsibility for politicians to model really good behavior where they can," she said.

"I think that's one of the trade-offs of being in the public eye, that your personal behavior is often quite monitored by the public and that's really important."

It's unlikely members of the public looking at the photo will stop to think about the risks the Prime Minister might be balancing up when taking off her mask. 

"That's where you have the risk of just seeing the Prime Minister without a mask and the Governor-General and others, that indicates that social norm of 'oh that's what people do'.

"I think the Prime Minister dropping a mask for a photo also makes that more of a social norm."

She said "posting a photo without a face mask, it does kinda indicate that's an okay behaviour".

Dr Joel Rindelaub, an aerosol chemist at the University of Auckland, said good mask-use should be promoted. 

"I think any time you have a photo op, it's a good opportunity to show proper mask etiquette and what we want the rest of New Zealand to follow," he said.

"Now is absolutely the time to be promoting mask use because we are seeing an increase of cases and we know it's highly transmissible. Masks are really the best tool that we have right now, the best tool that the Government is using. They're starting to distribute free masks to the community. So it's definitely something that everyone is pushing for right now."

Jacinda Ardern's Government has been stressing mask-use.
Jacinda Ardern's Government has been stressing mask-use. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Aerosol transmission risks

Speaking generally about the aerosol transmission of viruses like SARs-CoV-2, Dr Rindelaub said every time an infected person breathes out, talks or coughs, it expels "thousands of tiny little droplets that are so small you can't even see". 

"They're just gonna hang out in the air. If you're near someone who is infected you're going to be breathing in their exhaled spit particles, more or less, you're going to be breathing in their exhaled breath. So that is how the infection spreads through what we know as aerosol transmission."

There's a higher risk this can happen indoors due to a lack of fresh airflow, he said, while other factors like ventilation can also make a difference. But there is evidence that the virus can be spread within a matter of seconds, Dr Rindelaub told Newshub. 

"The longer that you don't have a mask on, the greater your chance of exposure. But it could very likely happen in less time than you would imagine.

"There is always a risk whenever you aren't wearing a mask indoors when we have such high levels of community transmission."

Political risks

Politically, the Prime Minister not wearing a mask in the picture may frustrate groups pushing for people to mask-up and those dealing with an overloaded health system concerned about the spread of COVID-19, Dr Greaves said.

"I think this is a place where the political left would be a bit more concerned, like the Greens and Māori Party and associated groups from that part of the political spectrum."

Among those critical of the image is former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark, who wrote a report for the World Health Oraganization on pandemic preparedness. She tweeted that the image of the "unmasked" group was "shocking" in the "middle of a pandemic surge".

After a Twitter user questioned if Clark had "joined National", the former PM said that was "totally ridiculous" and "sadly typical of the way everything about the pandemic now gets politicised". 

"I have co-chaired the leading global review of how the pandemic developed & measures that need to be taken. I have great concern for the survival of the elderly & vulnerable."

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker told Newshub on Tuesday that he was "quite shocked" at the image of Ardern without a mask and said ti was a "missed opportunity to promote mask-use".

The picture also led Ardern's former deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters to make accusations of hypocrisy, while ACT's David Seymour was also critical. However, National's deputy leader Nicola Willis said Ardern should be given a break.

It's not the first time the Prime Minister has received criticism for taking a maskless picture. She got into hot water during the 2020 election campaign for not wearing a mask during a selfie with fans. She later admitted that was a "mistake".