A new poll has found 75 percent of New Zealanders would support a mask mandate in public places as health experts say the current requirements don’t go far enough, Marc Daalder reports

Three quarters of the country say they strongly or somewhat agree with the compulsory wearing of face masks in public, according to a new Ipsos survey of 1,001 New Zealanders.

That’s the highest support for a mask mandate reaching beyond just public transport that Ipsos has registered since it began asking the question in September. In the survey, which was conducted between November 13 and 17 just after the discovery of a mystery case of Covid-19 in Auckland’s CBD, opposition to compulsory mask-wearing also declined from 31 percent in October to just 22 percent.

Support for keeping the borders closed also ticked up from 70 to 75 percent, after registering a steady decline since March.

The strong level of support for a broader mask mandate came despite the fact that New Zealanders are less concerned about Covid-19 affecting them, their family, their community, their job or their country in any time since polling began prior to Level 4 lockdown. However, those surveyed did recognise the global threat that the virus represents overseas, with 80 percent saying it poses a “high” threat to the world.

Nick Wilson, an associate professor and epidemiologist at the University of Otago’s Department of Public Health, has consistently lobbied for masks to be worn more widely than just on public transport. He told Newsroom that universal indoor mask use could be cheaply and easily deployed if a small outbreak was detected and have a significant impact on the virus’ ability to spread.

Prior to any outbreak, however, he said high-risk venues like bars should still be subject to the same restrictions as public transport.

Wilson also believes people won’t wear masks if there isn’t a legal requirement to.

“That’s the foolish thing about the Government. It brought in these expectations, but it’s just ridiculous. All the international evidence says if you want good uptake, you have to make it a mandated thing. Just like seatbelts – when seatbelts were voluntary, uptake was something like 60 percent. To get it over 90 percent, you just had to pass a law,” he said.

Enforcement doesn’t have to ensure 100 percent compliance, either. Wilson said that the relationship between mask uptake and the benefits of masking is probably linear, particularly once you have more than half the population participating.

“The tipping points are, if you have voluntary things with under 50 percent, then that will make [it harder]. People are social animals and they like to do what other people are doing and they don’t like to stand out, so if 95 percent of people are wearing a mask, people feel odd if they’re not wearing a mask.”

Although the Government has previously cited public compliance as a reason to avoid getting ahead of the public on issues like mask mandates, this survey would seem to put that argument to bed. Nonetheless, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said there were more factors to take into account.

“The first thing we look to is, what’s the public health risk, what’s the public health benefit? Then we look to compliance and enforceability – can it be enforced?” he said.

Hipkins added that he had yet to ask Cabinet about expanding the existing mask mandate, for public transport in Auckland and all domestic flights, to public transport elsewhere in the country.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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