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By Craig McCulloch, RNZ News deputy political editor

A prominent New Zealand epidemiologist is calling for much wider mask mandates, saying the roll-out of free masks, while positive, will make a “fairly small” difference to the covid-19 outbreak.

The government yesterday announced masks and rapid antigen tests would be made freely available while the country battled a resurgence of covid-19 and other winter illnesses.

University of Otago’s Professor Michael Baker told RNZ News much more was required to prevent the worst outcomes of a “really grim winter”.

“We are missing the fundamental measure to stop sharing this virus widely and that is universal mask use indoors.”

23 more deaths
The Ministry of Health reports there were 11,382 new community cases of covid-19 yesterday and a further 23 deaths with the virus.

In a statement, the ministry said a child less than 10 years old had died, while five other people who died were in their 70s, nine were in their 80s and eight were aged over 90. Of these people, 11 were women and 12 were men.

All the deaths being reported occurred in the past seven days, the ministry said.

That takes the total number of publicly reported deaths with covid-19 to 1760 and the seven-day rolling average of reported deaths is 20.

Dr Baker said New Zealand needed to shift to becoming a “mask-using society”, which he believed could be achieved only through mandating their use in most indoor environments.

“The very ad hoc approach to requiring mask use is eroding the social licence for them,” Dr Baker said.

“You go to one social event, and everyone’s wearing a mask, and so you feel comfortable. Next day, you go to a different one, and no one’s wearing a mask, except you, and that feels a bit odd. We need to get rid of those inconsistencies.”

Fear of political backlash
Dr Baker said he believed the government had opted for a greater focus on personal responsibility for fear of a potential political backlash.

“Unfortunately, we’ve politicised this issue too much and politics is starting to take over from the science.”

But, speaking to RNZ Checkpoint, Covid-19 Response Minister Ayesha Verrall said it was “not simple” to implement mask mandates.

“It impacts the running of many businesses and we need people to take a pragmatic approach to this.”

Dr Verrall said, however, she would encourage everyone to wear a mask while indoors as much as possible.

She rejected the suggestion the government’s approach to tackling rising covid-19 cases was based on politics over health.

Dr Verrall would not say if the predicted peak of 1200 hospitalisations a day would be a crisis, but said the government was doing everything it could to avoid the scenario playing out.

‘Real health pressures’
“I think it’s really important we respond to the very real pressures in our health system, and I’ve been in close contact with healthcare workers, as well as following the statistics we get to make sure we know what the facts are, and that we respond to them and fix the problems that exist,” she said.

“A lot of what we set out today is designed to do that.”

Green Party MP Teanau Tuiono said the development was “about time”, but he would have liked to see masks made mandatory in schools.

“We’re all over it, we’re all tired… but it’s just no excuse to drop the ball because here’s the thing: there are people still in hospital, people dying from covid,” he said.

“The numbers are going up and we are in the middle of winter, so what we need here is that leadership.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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