Kiwis split on masks as NZ 'moves on'

·3-min read

Many New Zealanders enjoyed the luxury of a morning commute without a mask on Tuesday, the first day of relaxed COVID-19 restrictions.

Others opted to leave them on for their bus and train trips, a sign of the fear that runs deep in hard-hit New Zealand and the division which underpins the government's call.

On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the abandonment of the COVID-19 restrictions system, leaving only minimal mask-wearing and isolation provisions in place.

Citing rapidly reduced case numbers and hospitalisations, Ms Ardern said it was time to "take back certainty".

"Now is the time to move forward without the extraordinary measures we have previously used and with the certainty that we have all missed, and we can do this with confidence that our actions have successfully managed cases down."

New Zealand has just come out of a bleak winter, without the lockdowns used in the first two years of the pandemic, but a much deeper death toll.

Around 1500 Kiwis have died in the last four months, three times the number who died in the rest of the pandemic.

Health professionals are also fatigued after working through the "twindemic" of COVID-19 and the worst influenza outbreak in memory, brought on by the re-opening of borders and lack of natural immunity from two years largely closed off.

Public health experts warn the decision to relax restrictions could see at-risk Kiwis close themselves off from society.

"I am seeing a lot of concern for the immunocompromised and disabled community, and for good reason. There is firm evidence for relatively higher risk of serious illness among these groups," University of Auckland paediatrician Jin Russell said.

Dr Russell argued for equity in access to boosters and antivirals, noting the risk of hospitalisation and death from COVID-19 surges with old age.

The government has included widened access to antivirals in its planning, and COVID-19 Minister Ayesha Verrall noted vaccination would continue in some form.

"The 'when' and 'with what' and whether that's a variant specific vaccine are current questions the scientists are having to work through," she said.

The relaxation of restrictions pushes New Zealand past many jurisdictions which still require masks on public transport.

Noted epidemiologists Rod Jackson and Michael Baker agreed the mask mandate should remain for public transport.

"This was something we discussed at great length," Ms Ardern told Radio NZ.

"It is still the advice of government and health officials that people continue to utilise masks on public transport, and in the future mask use will continue to be one of those measures, as cases increase, we will dial up."

In Wellington, opposition leader Chris Luxon said he appreciated the concerns of the immunocompromised but said "we have to move on".

"Our view is New Zealand is over it. They've been over it for some time. We have to move forward," he said.

Air New Zealand has scrapped compulsory mask-wearing on its flights, but drew online criticism for saying "your safety remains our biggest priority" in its announcement.

Tramways Union president Gary Froggett said bus drivers were for the change.

"Not having to have those stretchy cords around their ears for nine or 10 hours a day will be a welcome relief," he told Radio NZ.

Mask-wearing mandates remain in acute health care and aged care settings.