Covid-19: Government proposes ending mask mandates

By Daisy Hudson of

Disability support providers are concerned about the impact of the proposed changes. File photo
Photo: 123RF

The government has proposed scrapping mask mandates in all but the most high-risk health settings, the Otago Daily Times can reveal.

Disability support providers are concerned about the impact of the proposed changes, and that rushed consultation could lead to the voices of disabled people not being properly heard.

An email sent to disability support providers by the Ministry of Disabled People this week asked for feedback within 24 hours on a proposal to “significantly narrow” where masks had to be worn.

The requirement for visitors to wear a mask would only extend to primary care, urgent care, hospitals, residential aged care and disability-related residential care.

Other health services such as dentists, physiotherapists, optometrists, audiologists, counselling, home-based care and clinical psychologists would become exempt.

There would continue to be no legal requirement for mask use for health-care workers, or patients, in all health service settings.

It was proposed mandates would remain in place for all people in publicly accessible areas of pharmacies.

Although not mentioned in the email, those in the disability sector believe that if the government was looking to drop mask mandates in some healthcare settings, it would also drop them from less risky settings like retail and hospitality.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday the traffic light settings would be reviewed by Cabinet in a fortnight.

The country is in the Orange setting, which mandates masks in areas such as supermarkets and shopping malls. If the level were to shift to the Green setting, mask requirements would be dropped completely.

The ministry email was sent to providers at 2.14pm on Tuesday, asking for feedback. They were given less than 24 hours to respond.

‘Tight deadline’ concern

IHC Group chief executive Ralph Jones said its IDEA Services entity was pleased to be consulted, and that disability-related residential care had been dubbed high-risk.

But he was concerned about being given only a short timeframe to respond to a “complex and critical issue”.

“We are concerned that with this tight deadline, the voices of disabled people on this issue haven’t been properly heard.

“We know that people with intellectual disabilities are a high-risk population in terms of the negative health effects of Covid-19, and we want to ensure that all the incredibly hard work our staff have put in to date to protect the people we support isn’t undone.”

The organisation would continue to strongly recommend frontline staff wear mask, as national case numbers continued to be in the thousands, he said.

New Zealand Disability Support Network chief executive Peter Reynolds also said the timeframe to respond was very short, and his organisation’s response was outside of the consultation window.

While some providers may be concerned about the proposal to lessen the requirement for mask wearing, there were other options, he said.

All providers remained responsible to meet the requirements of the Health and Safety at Work Act, which expected them to identify and mitigate hazards that could affect their staff and workplace.

Providers should take circumstances into account, such as whether a person has a legitimate exclusion from mask wearing, or whether wearing a mask could create an adverse reaction from a disabled person, he said.

The Ministry of Health yesterday said the seven-day rolling average of community case numbers was 2023. The previous Thursday it was 3061.

A spokesman for Covid-19 Response Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said engagement was undertaken when changes were proposed, but that did not mean decisions on any set course of action had been made.

“As the pandemic continues to evolve, our response to Covid-19 as always moves at pace,” the spokesman said.

“This is part of the reason why we have a limited timeframe to undertake engagement activity.”

There has also been political pushback against the short consultation period.

Green Party Covid spokesman Teanau Tuiono said the party was worried about the timing, and there was no need for it to be a rushed decision.

All Covid-19 decisions should prioritise the views of disabled and other vulnerable communities, he said.

“There may be an argument for reducing the range of situations that a mask is needed while Covid cases are lower than they have been for most of this year, but the government should be ready to put these requirements back in place if and when there is another spike in cases,” Tuiono said.

National Party disability issues spokeswoman Penny Simmonds also said it was “pretty tough” to expect organisations to give meaningful feedback in such a short time period.

– This story was first published in the Otago Daily Times.