The Ministry of Health has declined to offer its expert view on a regulation allowing public transport passengers to remove face masks so they can drink beer, wine and coffee bought on ferries.
The Ministry has declined requests from Stuff for a clear answer since February, even though one document implied it opposed the regulation allowing mask-removal for recreational refreshments.
Covid-19 regulations require masks on all public transport services. But they also contain exemptions, including for the consumption of refreshments sold normally during a journey.
Erratic enforcement on Auckland’s ferry services, and complaints about drinkers going mask-free flared up in February, with one local politician saying vulnerable passengers were “terrified”.
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The rules also apply on domestic flights and long-distance rail services, but the tension between the masked and non-masked was most marked on commuter ferry trips, generally less than 30 minutes long.
While the country was in alert level 1 in February, Stuff sought comment and documents from the Ministry explaining the rationale for the exemption on short commuter trips, specifically noting Auckland’s ferries.
The Ministry declined, saying: “For the purpose of this request, urban public transport services have been defined as any bus, train or plane service within urban areas.” It made no mention of ferries.
It did identify one document, held by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which provided an online link to it on March 19.
The November 2020 Cabinet minute summarised new mask-wearing regulations for Auckland, but the paragraph outlining the refreshment exemption ended: “(not supported by the Ministry of Health)”.
The document implied the Ministry opposed the exemption for refreshments, which include beer, wine and coffee, but the ministry has declined repeated requests for clarification of its position.
The Ministry’s final response on June 2 was a statement in the name of Dr HarrietteCarr, deputy Director of Public Health, but which did not address the “not supported” line.
Carr did not appear to encourage the practice of removing masks to consume refreshments.
“There are risks (non-COVID-19 related), particularly on long journeys or in hot weather of not allowing people to eat, drink or take medicines which need to be balanced against the potential risk of COVID-19; temporarily removing your mask to eat, drink or take medication becomes more important on a longer journey – from Auckland to Wellington for example, than on a shorter urban transport commute,” she said.
“However, it’s worth reinforcing that temporarily removing masks to eat and drink or take medicines involves people touching their mask, and often putting their hands near their mouth (eg eating). People will often re-use the same mask. This could increase risk if proper hand hygiene protocols are not followed, and potentially negates any perceived benefit from the mask wearing.”
“Additionally public transport has been seen as a setting where people may come into close contact with people that they do not know, in a confined setting, and where it may be difficult to contact trace people later.”
Stuff has a standing request in with the Ministry of Health for an interview on the issue, but over a period of weeks the Ministry’s response has been that “there’s no one available to be interviewed.”
But whether the Ministry which is responsible for managing the country’s response to, and precautions against, the spread of Covid-19 got overruled on the refreshment exemption, remains unanswered.
Stuff has lodged a complaint with the office of the Ombudsman.
Under Covid-19 alert level 2, the exemption can be struck out, with Auckland’s biggest ferry operator Fullers360 saying its onboard cafes closed under health orders issued for the previous level 2 period.
In Wellington, where Covid-19 alert level 2 began on June 23, East by West Ferry said it chose to close bar sales “as a precautionary measure, a prudent move given current circumstances.”