New Zealanders are to mask up for at least another month, with the government citing the risk of a second Omicron wave at the same time as Kiwis battle winter colds or flu for not relaxing COVID-19 settings.
A meeting of senior government leaders has resolved to keep New Zealand in the ‘orange’ setting of its traffic light-styled COVID-19 Protection Framework for another month.
At orange, masks are mandated for flights, public transport, retail and public facilities, along with workers at gatherings, events and businesses that require close proximity, such as food and drink outlets.
A previous feature of the orange setting – caps on gathering sizes – has been phased out.
COVID-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said he was “encouraged” by steady caseloads at roughly a third of New Zealand’s peak, experienced in March.
“There are other factors at play that tell us to remain cautious and not yet move to green,” he said.
“These include the arrival of new strains of colds and flus, which will add to the workloads of our already busy hospitals.”
The review comes as New Zealand recorded 7507 cases on Tuesday, in line with its seven-day average of 7795.
There were 15 deaths in the latest reporting period, also broadly similar to the average, with 327 people in hospital with the virus – down from the peak of 1000.
“While daily cases numbers have flattened nationally, they are again beginning to increase in the Northern region and hospitalisation rates have also increased slightly over the past month,” Mr Hipkins said.
“Our latest COVID-19 modelling indicates that under current conditions, there is a likelihood of a secondary wave of cases appearing.”
New Zealand limited coronavirus-related deaths to approximately 55 until the end of last year, but has experienced more than 1000 this year.
Right-wing opposition party ACT criticised the decision to extend mask-wearing mandates.
“These rules don’t make sense anymore but just constrain people’s everyday lives and make us a less attractive destination to tourists,” leader David Seymour said.
“Why on earth would people want to come here if they thought they’d have to isolate for seven days after testing positive? Newsflash, they won’t.”
The Greens have the opposite view, calling on the government to also mandate mask-wearing in schools as winter approaches.
“Where’s the plan? The government needs to support schools and families so no one is left to muddle through winter by themselves,” COVID-19 spokesman Teanau Tuiono said.
“Opening classroom windows as the outside temperatures plummet is not a good enough plan to keep children, young people, their teachers and whanau (family) safe.”