National Deputy leader Nicola Willis defends PM Jacinda Ardern after maskless photo causes furore

National's Deputy leader is defending Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after she came under fire for being pictured maskless in a crowd of more than 100 people. 

The Prime Minister posed for the photo on Tuesday with 120 youth MPs, Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro, and a number of sitting MPs on a staircase in the Beehive. Just one person can be seen wearing a mask.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister said Ardern was wearing a mask the rest of the day but took it off briefly for the photo at the request of the photographer. Other photos posted along with the maskless one showed her wearing a mask. 

But the photo drew swift backlash because it was posted while the country sees a wave of new COVID-19 cases. 

On Tuesday there were 10,772 new community cases with 788 hospitalisations and 21 deaths. 

In recent weeks, there has been a rapid increase in cases which has slowed in the last week.

Speaking with AM on Wednesday, National Deputy leader Nicola Willis said the Prime Minister clearly just took her mask off briefly to take a photo. 

"I think we just need to give the Prime Minister a break," Willis said. "Who among us hasn't taken off our mask to pose for a photo and actually I am sure just like all the youth MPs, she's been wearing her mask around Parliament. She took it off for a moment, I am pretty relaxed about that."

Willis said for the vast majority of the time Ardern will be wearing her mask and taking it off for one photo isn't outrageous. 

"Most of the time she will be role modelling good behaviour with her mask and around Parliament, we all are. So for a moment in a photo when the photographer says, 'Can you take your mask off?' Most of us think, yeah I will show people my smile."

When asked whether Willis was just defending Ardern because she had also been photographed maskless posing for photos, Willis said "there is an element of that".

"I would be a bit of a hypocrite because certainly I've posed for photos without my mask on and I probably will do so again. 

"But when I am inside I follow the rules, when I am at events I follow the rules and she's not actually breaking a rule in that photo," she said. 

While Willis might be giving Ardern a break, other politicians aren't. On Tuesday, ACT leader David Seymour criticised Ardern saying the least she can do is follow Parliament's mask rules. 

"It sounds like the Prime Minister may have got confused. She may have thought she was still overseas," Seymour suggested. 

"She has asked New Zealanders to follow her rules at great cost. The least she could do is follow Parliament's rules herself."

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark also criticised Ardern, saying the photo was shocking. 

"Indeed shocking to see the unmasked youth parliament. What on Earth are they thinking. NZ is in the middle of a pandemic surge," she tweeted.

Meanwhile, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters called the photo hypocritical.

"The PM and a number of MPs who like to lecture Kiwis on wearing masks. Then walk out the door and this is what they do - because it suits them," he tweeted.

Earlier on Tuesday, epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said he was "quite shocked" to see the image and that it was a "missed opportunity to promote mask-use".

According to the Unite Against COVID-19 website people should wear masks whenever they are in a public indoor setting or if it is hard to keep their distance from people they do not know.