The Greens and National have both backed a plan to make N95 masks free and health experts say the move would help the country fight Omicron, Marc Daalder reports

Pressure is mounting on Cabinet to secure a large supply of N95-style respirators and provide them free to every New Zealander who needs them.

The Green Party has pushed in Parliament and on social media for the measure, with co-leader James Shaw saying it would be equivalent to the Government’s plan to provide rapid tests free. Community organisers at the new activist group Communities for Public Health launched a petition on Wednesday on the “increasingly urgent” issue which was signed by at least two health experts.

In addition, National Party spokesperson for the Covid-19 Response Chris Bishop told Newsroom that he too supported the call, as well as any other measures that get more effective masks to the population.

“I support the provision of N95 masks as widely as possible. The simple maths are that they strongly prevent the spread of Covid compared to the cloth masks that most of us were used to wearing for the better part of last year,” he said.

“Anything that encourages people to wear a KN95 or an N95 is a good thing. If it turns out that free provision is something that would help do that, then I support it.”

Health experts have long pushed for an upgrade to the Government’s masking policies and were disappointed when Cabinet decided to limit the requirement to wear surgical or N95 masks to particular frontline workforces.

“It would have been good to see the wider public supplied with more effective masks such as the N95 or P2. It is disappointing that the factors hindering this distribution were quoted as supply and cost,” University of Canterbury public health expert Matthew Hobbs said in January.

“Higher-quality masks also tend to come with a higher price tag, so equity is of huge concern at the minute.”

The Green Party’s Covid-19 Response spokesperson Elizabeth Kerekere also said the issue was one of equity.

“N95 or equivalent masks should … be given free to those who cannot afford them,” she said.

The few respirators that are available in New Zealand are being sold at hiked prices, making them difficult for low-income New Zealanders to obtain.

In the United States, the government has distributed three free N95 respirators to every adult. The equivalent standard in New Zealand is the P2 respirator, though the American N95, Chinese KN95 and Korean KF94 styles are also common.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told Newsroom that the Government now accepted the evidence that N95-standard respirators are more effective than surgical or cloth masks.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield in January disputed independent health experts’ arguments that respirators are far more effective than surgical masks, saying they need to be fit-tested for that to be the case.

But that conflicted with his department’s advice to Hipkins in a June 2021 briefing about mask use by the MIQ workforce and by returnees in MIQ. In that briefing, Ministry of Health deputy chief executive Sue Gordon wrote that fit-testing boosted the efficacy of respirators but “even non-fit tested P2/N95 particulate respirators are likely to offer a greater level of respiratory protection than the ear loop medical masks currently in use”.

Despite accepting the new scientific evidence, Hipkins said the Government wouldn’t consider a move to make masks freely available for more populations until it could secure the supply.

“Certainly we are looking at what’s realistic in terms of supply, what extra masks we could get that meet that N95 criteria and so yes, it is something we’ve got under constant review,” he said on Tuesday morning.

In lieu of Government support, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged employers to supply respirators to their workforces, though commercial stocks appear to have dried up amidst the Omicron outbreak.

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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