A data analyst within the Ministry of Education has gone rogue, calling for the reinstatement of the school mask mandate in an email the Government disavows, Marc Daalder reports

The Government is accused of being “asleep at the wheel” when it comes to protecting children from Covid-19, in an internal email obtained by Newsroom.

The official’s email was sent on Monday afternoon to the Education and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, the ministry’s chief executive Iona Holsted and dozens of other ministry employees, and says the Government has “a responsibility to prevent as many children as possible from being infected and reinfected” with Covid-19.

A spokesperson for Hipkins said it was for the ministry to address, but the email “does not reflect Government policy”. They declined to answer whether Hipkins had responded to the email.

Sean Teddy, head of the ministry’s Operations and Integration team and one of the recipients of the email, told Newsroom in a statement that schools are able to make their own choices about masks.

“Schools and kura know their communities and are best placed to make decisions that prioritise the safety and wellbeing of their students, teachers and support staff. This includes choosing to require masks if that’s right for them,” he said.

“As a public service employer, we respect that our staff have individual opinions, rights and beliefs but there are obligations in regard to making sure our personal interests or opinions do not impact on our professional actions.”

The leak of the message comes after 150 New Zealand scientists and health professionals signed an open letter to the Government calling on it to reinstate the school mask mandate and implement other protections in schools. That letter was signed by some of the most prominent independent voices in New Zealand’s Covid-19 response, including University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker, University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles and University of Auckland paediatrician Jin Russell.

“You have not asked specifically for my advice on the matter of masks in schools, but the matter is too urgent and critical to wait for a request,” the official, who holds the role of senior data analyst, wrote in the message viewed by Newsroom. The email had the subject line “COVID19 Asleep at the wheel?”.

“I strongly support the contents of the letter signed by ~150 NZ scientists and doctors and the call from the Disability Rights Commissioner urging us to reinstitute the mask mandate in schools.”

The analyst wrote that it didn’t matter whether Omicron could be completely stopped or whether the mask mandate could be fully enforced.

“We still have a responsibility to prevent as many children as possible from being infected and reinfected with SARS2. It is a dangerous disease whose long-term effects are as yet unknown, and many of our tamariki remain unvaccinated. Without masks they stand very little protection at all.”

The email also directly criticised Hipkins’ comments on Newshub Nation about each school being able to make its own decision on whether to require masks.

“It was extremely distressing as an analyst to hear Chris Hipkins admit over the weekend that measures in schools are based on what is popular, not based on evidence. This is not the kind of leadership we should expect or accept from our minister.”

The analyst concluded by saying it was officials’ “duty” to “prevent as much infection and reinfection as possible”.

“If you have decision making power in this ministry, please use it to protect children. If you do not, please talk to your boss and ask them if this is really what we stand for.”

In comments to Newsroom before he was made aware of the email, Hipkins said that the mask mandate was always “under review” but that he still wanted to leave it up to individual schools to make their own decisions. He also said he was confident schools have the information they need to make evidence-based decisions.

“We have provided guidance in our school bulletins to support school leaders and boards to decide what is the right course of action for their individual circumstances and communities and will continue to supply masks free of charge to all schools and kura that want them,” Teddy told Newsroom.

But the health advice to schools from the Ministry of Education has been self-contradictory in recent weeks. Although the blanket mask mandate has been repealed, bulletins emphasise that masks are still “strongly encouraged”. 

Messages on the health impacts of Covid-19 have been unclear.

A March 18 bulletin noted, “Tamariki and rangatahi who catch Covid-19 will usually have no symptoms or only mild respiratory symptoms, similar to a cold”.

Two weeks later, the ministry advised that “although milder than Delta, Omicron is not a mild illness”. Two weeks after that, the ministry had returned to saying, “for most people, Covid-19 will be a mild to moderate illness”.

Anna Brooks, an immunologist at the University of Auckland, told Newsroom that children are still vulnerable to serious impacts from Covid-19, including Long Covid. Brooks was one of the signatories of the open letter.

“We know that it is impacting children. We absolutely know that they’re at lower risk, but is that okay? Is that okay to have the unfortunate child who gets Long Covid for life?” she said.

“You can’t make schools decide this themselves. It’s all about inequities, right? Some schools are doing it well and some aren’t. If you happen to be at the wrong school, then you’re in big trouble.”

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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