Tougher mask rules on the way in light of Omicron

The emergence of Omicron will see tougher masks rules for New Zealand while in the Red traffic light setting.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made the announcement today. It would come into force in nine days' time.

Woman wearing face mask (file picture).

The rules now include mask-wearing at food and drink businesses, close proximity businesses, events and gatherings. The exemption of when eating, drinking or exercising still applies.

It will also not apply to non-public facing work forces, pools and gatherings with exclusive use of a place.

A face covering now needs to be an actual mask, so scarfs and bandanas can not be used.

"A bandana is not good enough, a scarf won't provide you protection and a t-shirt definitely won't," Ardern said.

Director of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said they were not going to recommend N95 masks for the general public going about daily business as they were more expensive and harder to purchase.

However, for those who were using those masks, Dr Bloomfield said the Ministry of Health would provide advice on how to properly wear them.

Employees who were mandated to be vaccinated, such as health care workers, teachers and border and MIQ workers, would have to wear medical grade masks while working in public-facing roles.

"These include the widely available ‘blue’ medical-grade masks that many are already wearing," Ardern said, with three-layer tightly-woven cloth also allowed.

In Red, a face covering was already required on flights, public transport, and taxis, in retail shops and public venues, and in health and education facilities.

Children in Year 4 and above would also need to wear masks on school transport and public transport.

"I know that some of these adjustments might cause challenges but the science has been updated, and these adjustments will slow the spread of the virus, save lives, and give us time to get more of the eligible population boosted," Ardern said.

"We have looked at a lot of overseas data on who is most successfully managing omicron, masks play a significant role when done right.

"We have made a major shift in New Zealand by adopting their widespread use, now we just need to tighten them up slightly so we get the best out of this measure."

There were 29 community cases of Covid-19 associated with the January Omicron cluster.