Wellington, New Zealand – Cabinet has agreed that from Thursday, people in Auckland will be required to wear face masks on public transport and during domestic travel.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also revealed that the Government is looking into extending the public transport mask-mandate to the entire country.
But there is, as yet, no timeline and Ardern said officials will be keeping a close eye on the uptake of the new rules in Auckland.
This afternoon’s announcement does not mean New Zealand, or any region of the country, is changing alert levels.
The new rules are “another line of defence” when it comes to the country’s Covid-19 response plan, Ardern told reporters.
The rules can be enforced by police, according to Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said, but the focus would be on education.
“Now is the right time to make mask use mandatory in these situations. It will provide another line of defence, is a low-cost and practical option and presents a minor inconvenience by comparison.”
But, by law, people can be punished if they don’t follow the new rules. The punishment will be included when the orders are drafted, Hipkins said.
Both Ardern and Hipkins were at pains to point out that it will not be up to bus drivers to enforce the rules.
Children and young people travelling to and from school are exempt from face-covering requirements on school buses and other school transport.
Although mandatory masks on public transport are not yet at a country-wide level, Ardern still encouraged people to wear masks.
“We are asking every New Zealander to continue to play their part,” Hipkins said.
He said that over the past few days – since Auckland had a Covid-19 community scare – the level of compliance has been high.
The new public health order, mandating the new mask rules, will come into force at 11.59pm on Wednesday, November 18.
“It’s [a mask] also a good visual reminder that while New Zealand remains relatively free of restrictions, we’re not out of the woods yet. We’re at level 1, not level zero.”
Rules may be rolled out across NZ – Ardern
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said these new approaches are “another line of defense”.
She said ongoing mask use has always been encouraged, but the Government wanted to see mask use on public transport enhanced.
On flights, she said it’s “much, much simpler” if everyone on flights wears masks.
But when it comes to public transport, that’s just for Auckland at the moment given there is more of a border workforce living in the city.
Ardern said the Ministry of Health has recommended short-term mandatory mask usage a while ago, but Ardern said that would have been too confusing.
Ardern said these rules will be self-reinforcing as people will know their responsibility.
Ardern said the Government will work with bus operators on this.
She said Cabinet will be considering if this should be rolled out across the country – but she did not provide a timeframe.
On encouraging the Covid-19 app, Ardern said the Government was “considering all its options”.
“We all want a summer break,” she said.
She said the Government would be “thinking creatively” about how to encourage app usage.
Going forward, a priority for the Government is privacy. That will be top of mind when they look to develop the Covid-19 app.
Hipkins wants people to be in control of their own data.
When it comes to contact tracing, Hipkins said “nothing was off the table”.
Ardern said many countries have gone back into lockdown and many Kiwis are wanting to come home, she told reporters.
She said “no system” is perfect.
It is Cabinet’s view that New Zealand’s rules need to be constantly re-looked at.
“We believe we need additional precautions,” she said.
On the Covid case last week, Hipkins said getting into a “blame game” helps no one and everyone would struggle to retrace all their steps.
He said the Government is still looking at the risks profile when it comes to the case last week.
Auckland mayor Phil Goff said he encouraged everyone to mask up on public transport.
“Widespread wearing of masks is one way that we can reduce the chances of further community transmission of Covid-19 and avoid having to go back into lockdown,” he said.
“Wearing a mask while on public transport will soon be compulsory and should be part of everyone’s standard practice, alongside not going to work when you have cold or flu-like symptoms, regular handwashing, cough/sneeze etiquette and keeping track of your location.
“Please follow these rules — they will help keep yourself and others safe from Covid-19,” he said.
On frozen NZ meat and Covid
On the meat situation – where frozen New Zealand products were said to have contained traces of Covid in China – Ardern said the Government was advised that there had been positive tests from Argentina.
New Zealand products were in the same cool-store, but the Government was not officially advised that New Zealand meat had traces of Covid-19, she said.
“I want to get to the bottom of this,” she said.
“This is incredibly important to New Zealand,” she said.
Ardern said Apec is important for New Zealand and the last thing the world needs right now is protectionist trade policies.
She said the RCEP agreement is important for New Zealand because it opens the country up to the world more.
Ardern said the “green shoots” of NZ’s Covid-19 recovery puts the country in a good position to talk to other nations.
She said NZ remains in a good position, but our freedoms are under threat as Covid increases around the world.
On the Cook Islands bubble
On the Cook Islands bubble, Ardern said the officials will be looking into the maritime border.
She said that has been important to sure-up.
“This is not just about the Cook Islands being ready, it’s about NZ being ready,” she said.
On the South Australia cluster, Ardern said this further reinforces how the country intends to manage its borders when it comes to outbreaks.
“New Zealand has not rushed into this,” she said in regards to a travel bubble with Australia.”
On the transtasman bubble, she said evidence has demonstrated why it has been hard to move quickly.