‘Critical oversight’ in mask consultation

Prudence Walker. Photo: supplied
Prudence Walker. Photo: supplied
The failure of the Government to consult disabled people about scrapping mask mandates has been blasted as a "critical oversight".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday that New Zealand’s traffic light system settings were being reviewed and the Cabinet was awaiting public health advice about any possible shifts.

Her comments followed an Otago Daily Times report revealing the disability support sector had been asked for feedback on a proposal to remove mask requirements from all but the most high risk health settings.

Disability support organisations were left scrambling after being given less than 24 hours to respond to a request for feedback on the proposal by the Ministry of Disabled People.

It has now transpired organisations representing those with disabilities were not consulted at all.

Disabled Persons Assembly NZ chief executive Prudence Walker said her organisation only learned of the proposal when someone forwarded her the ministry email on Thursday.

"It’s just really disappointing, especially given how much we’ve been involved in the whole mask conversation right from the start.

"It seems like a critical oversight that we were not asked for feedback."

She had emailed the relevant ministries on Thursday afternoon to ask for reasonable time to provide feedback.

By noon yesterday she had not received a reply.

CCS Disability Action chief executive Melissa Smith said she told the ministry 24 hours was not enough time to provide feedback, and she also raised concerns about support agencies being consulted when organisations representing disabled people were not.

Ministry operational design and delivery interim deputy chief executive Amanda Bleckmann said the ministry was carrying out the consultation at the request of, and on behalf of, the Ministry of Health, and was working within timeframes allocated to it.

The country was under the Orange setting, which mandated masks in some places, such as supermarkets and shopping malls.

If the level were to shift to Green, mask requirements would be dropped completely.

Speaking yesterday, Ms Ardern said the Government was not just looking at a review of the traffic light system but at "broader settings more generally".

"We've been living with the traffic light system for upwards [of] a year now.

"Now is the time for us to look at whether all those settings are fit for purpose. We include masks in that."

Covid-19 Response Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said regular reviews looked at a range of factors, not just case numbers, including scenario modelling, public health considerations and the current capacity of the health sector.

"No decisions have been made yet and won’t be for a few more weeks, therefore I am unable to comment further."

While the Government is keeping mum on possible changes, one sector still covered by mask requirements has been making its views clear.

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said the organisation had been in touch with the Government as recently as this week to strongly urge mask requirements be dropped.

"At the moment, it's a legal requirement that you wear a mask in retail settings or face a $4000 fine, but it's not enforced and the Government has created a loophole the size of a 747 jumbo jet that allows anyone to self identify as exempt for almost any reason."

Compliance was low, and a survey of Retail NZ members suggested about two-thirds of customers were ignoring the requirement, he said.

"At the same time, the mandate is impacting the wellbeing of staff, and many customers are still getting aggressive and nasty if they are asked to put a mask on."

The Otago Regional Council said it had not received any proposals about changing mask rules on public transport, and the Dunedin City Council said it had not been contacted about changes to rules for public facilities like libraries.