The Prime Minister broke no rule when she took her mask off at the request of a photographer as she smiled alongside 120 Parliament Youth MPs.

Parliament is a place of work and the current mask requirements under the orange setting clearly state “You are encouraged to wear a face mask in public indoor settings wherever it is practical’’. This is not mandatory.

Face masks are required on public transport, in taxis and ride-shares, on domestic flights and at airports.

They are also required at public venues, such as museums and libraries (no mention of Parliament), healthcare facilities, vet clinics, retail businesses, courts, local and central government agencies, police, and public areas operated by NZ Post.

Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard, who has set his own rules for the Parliament precinct over the course of the pandemic, requires those in the building to wear masks when moving around from one place to the next.

Arguably, Jacinda Ardern wasn’t doing that either when she stood in one spot for a few seconds to smile at the camera.

But when a photo of the youth MPs alongside Ardern and the Governor-General was posted on social media on Tuesday night, the team of five million splintered over whether or not the Prime Minister made the right call.

The Government moved away from restrictions and mandates because public buy-in had dissolved and the traffic light system lacks any real bones given it was set up with vaccine mandates at the heart of it.

When the Government removed vaccine mandates and QR scanning on April 4, the public was released into the unknown.

For the first time since the Delta outbreak began there were next to no rules – gathering limits were gone and other than a few locations where masks are required, it’s up to people to make individual choices about what they do based on their own tolerance levels.

By then most of the public was done with vaccine mandates and restrictions and that message had been sent to political leaders loud and clear – the loudest descended on Parliament for three weeks.

Personal choice was finally back, and at a time when case numbers were low and it was still warm enough to be eating and socialising outside.

Three months later and winter has arrived with a vengeance, with Covid, flu and just about every other spreadable bug you can think of in tow.

The health system is buckling under the stress of Covid and flu hospitalisations, workforce fatigue, staff isolating and general shortages across almost every speciality.

Director General of Health Doctor Ashley Bloomfield is being broadcast back into people’s living rooms warning of the need to be vigilant about mask-wearing and to stay home if you’re unwell.

But there’s no mandates or rules around any of that bar the few places masks are required, and even then, many retail operators have spoken out about the lack of compliance.

The Government moved away from restrictions and mandates because public buy-in had dissolved and the traffic light system lacks any real bones given it was set up with vaccine mandates at the heart of it.

Despite the high rate of cases and hospitalisations, Ardern has ruled out a return to the red setting because she says gathering limits (the only restriction left at red) wouldn’t help bring down the numbers, which are predominantly impacting older age groups.

That means even decisions around whether to hold indoor parties and events with hundreds of maskless people are left to organisers.

There are no guidelines for how to best make those decisions and in the case of political parties, the Greens have moved their annual conference online this weekend while the National Party is full steam ahead in two weeks.

Neither party is right or wrong, they’ve simply made different decisions within the orange light framework based on what is best for them.

Some would like mandates and gathering limits to return – at the least, better guidelines would help people navigate a high-risk Covid environment.

In the meantime, everyone is being put under the microscope for the personal choices they make about how they want to manage their own Covid risk.

Nobody knows that better than Ardern.

She could have been mistaken for talking about Tuesday’s photo when she addressed the Local Government NZ audience on Wednesday and began by saying, “It’s getting tougher to be in public facing roles than it was even a few years ago’’.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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