Almost 30 per cent of Auckland bus drivers were not wearing face covering while at the wheel during a snap Herald poll.
But a top epidemiologist says the Government should consider whether the mask mandate on public transport in our largest city is still the best way to keep Kiwis safe from another Covid-19 outbreak.
The findings, which Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said didn’t meet his expectations, are from a Herald on Sunday survey last week – before news broke of community transmission in Northland – of driver face covering use on 20 passenger-occupied buses at five city locations. They were: Manurewa Interchange, Ōtāhuhu Interchange, New Lynn Transport Centre, Takapuna’s Lake Rd and Customs St East in downtown Auckland.
Both drivers and passengers, with some exceptions for mostly age, safety or health-related reasons, must by law wear a face covering while travelling on public transport in Auckland.
Driver face-covering use was highest in Manurewa, at 85 per cent, with 75 and 70 per cent use at New Lynn and Takapuna respectively. Sixty-five per cent of drivers at Ōtāhuhu and Customs St East wore face-coverings.
Out of the total 100 buses surveyed by the Herald on Sunday, 28 drivers either weren’t wearing face coverings or – in five of the 28 cases – weren’t wearing them properly.
Four companies operate most of the public bus routes in Auckland, NZ Bus, Ritchies, Go Bus and Howick and Eastern.
They constantly reminded drivers to wear their masks, as well as putting posters up at depots about the practice, Ritchies director Andrew Ritchie said.
One of the company’s drivers, who had been at the wheel of Northern Express bus services, tested positive for Covid-19 last September.
“We emphasise to them [a face covering] is for their own protection as much as anything.”
He wasn’t sure how many drivers had exemptions, except to say it was “quite a few”.
Those wearing glasses, for example, might not be able to wear a mask if doing so fogged up the lens, he said.
“We don’t want them bloody crashing.”
NZ Bus, Go Bus and Howick and Eastern didn’t respond to requests for comment.
All bus operators were reminded again this week their drivers must wear face coverings unless they have a medical reason why they cannot, Auckland Transport spokesman Mark Hannan said.
They don’t have to mask up when no passengers are aboard, he said.
The mask mandate, which also applies to those travelling on commercial flights around New Zealand, was introduced by Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins on November 18, days after community transmission of the virus occurred between a defence worker and a student, which prompted a day-long quasi-lockdown of central Auckland and rapid contact-tracing and testing to ensure the virus hadn’t spread.
The mandate was welcomed by Professor Michael Baker at the time, but the epidemiologist also said mass-masking on public transport needed to be nationwide.
This week, Baker told the Herald keeping the mask mandate in Auckland only and not policing it was more of an issue to him than drivers, and some passengers, not masking-up.
Police weren’t “immediately aware” of any warnings or charges for contravening mask wearing orders, a spokeswoman said.
However a “mask-related incident” on a flight to Dunedin last week resulted in an air passenger being given a verbal warning for disorderly behaviour, she said.
The passenger was refusing to follow the rules of the aircraft before ultimately complying during the flight.
He didn’t like “half-hearted policies that seem inconsistent”, Baker said of the mask mandate.
“To get high compliance people need to see the logic of it. I applaud people doing the right thing, but we’ve passed the point now where we need to be moving to a more sophisticated response.
“[For example] do we need to wear masks on public transport in summer?”
More alert levels were needed so a national, risk-based policy on mask use, and other measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 – such as the Covid tracer app – could be tailored to the ongoing situation.
“We know so much about the virus now, and what works. We need to re-look at these things using a risk-based approach, [because] there are reserves of public trust and they’re not inexhaustible.”
That might mean instead of encouraging Kiwis to use the Covid tracer app everywhere, they were instead required to use it in places where the virus was spread more easily, such as, nightclubs or places of worship, Baker said.
The number of people signing in with the Covid tracer app has plunged – daily scans fell from 2.5m in September to around 500,000 in recent weeks – a levelpublic health expert Professor Nick Wilson told the Herald this month would make reacting to a community outbreak difficult.
In response to the Herald on Sunday survey, Hipkins warned against letting our guard down.
Covid-19 has killed more than two million worldwide and some countries, such as the UK, are dealing with soaring infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths.
“We’d all want to acknowledge Aucklanders for their commitment to overcoming the outbreaks of 2020 but a relaxed pace of life now doesn’t mean anyone can be
complacent. The rules around public transport at level 1 are there for a reason – to keep people safe – and they apply equally to drivers and passengers.
“Setting aside the reasons some drivers might be exempt, I would have expected a higher compliance rate than what’s indicated here.”
Bus companies, and Auckland Transport, need to reinforce the expectations “so hard-working drivers are keeping themselves safe, as well as setting an example to passengers”, Hipkins said.
“So far, the mask rules have focused on engagement and education. It’d be a real shame if enforcement was the next step.”
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