Maskless Ardern photo draws COVID critics

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Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark has joined criticism of Jacinda Ardern for posing maskless for a photo with Youth Parliament in Wellington.

On Tuesday, Ms Ardern, along with Governor-General Cindy Kiro, joined the 120 Youth MPs for a picture on the foyer steps of Wellington's Beehive building.

All are maskless, except for one participant.

The photo is arguably a breach of parliament's COVID-19 rules, which state "masks must always be worn when moving around precinct".

But the sharper criticism towards Ms Ardern is a charge of hypocrisy, given the heightened outbreak in New Zealand and the government's response.

The country is enduring a surge of cases and hospitalisations, hitting its highest daily tolls of the pandemic, with an average of 23 deaths each day over the past week.

The government's response has moved from a hardline elimination strategy to one of personal responsibility.

Ms Ardern and her ministers have implored Kiwis to mask up, with official guidance stating people are "encouraged" to wear masks "whenever you leave the house".

The prime minister's office said Ms Ardern took her mask off briefly for the photo after the photographer asked the group to remove their masks.

University of Otago professor Michael Baker told Newshub he was "quite shocked" to see the maskless photo.

Speaker Trevor Mallard used the incident to send a pointed note to staff on parliament grounds, saying "for the safety of all on the precinct, I remind you of (the mask-wearing) rule. It applies to everyone".

Others attacked the photo on social media, including Ms Clark.

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

Ms Clark, prime minister from 1999 to 2008, led a United Nations-backed independent review of the pandemic, titled COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic.

Her tweet led social media users to suggest she was doing the bidding of the opposition, a suggestion she labelled "totally ridiculous" and "sadly typical of the way everything about the pandemic now gets politicised".

In fact, the opposition National party - which leads Labour in the polls - declined to criticise Ms Ardern.

"Let's be sensible," deputy National leader Nicola Willis said.

"Many people have taken their mask of for photo. That's all that happened there and I don't think that's unreasonable."

Ms Ardern addressed the issue at a press conference in Palmerston North on Wednesday, saying she was asked by the photographer remove her mask.

"I think in the future I'll just have to more often politely decline," she said.

"I accept the point that we are role models. We will from time to time, make mistakes."

She uploaded the picture to her social media accounts while paying tribute to Youth Parliament.

"It's such a fantastic programme, and always leaves me with great hope ... so thanks Youth Parliament 2022, for letting me be a part of your day today," she wrote.

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