Ministry health

Leaked ministry emails asking for masks in schools


A data analyst at the Department for Education has gone rogue, calling for the reinstatement of the school mask mandate in an email the government disavows, reports Marc Daalder

The government is accused of “sleeping behind the wheel” when it comes to protecting children from Covid-19, in an internal email obtained by Newsroom.

The official’s email was sent Monday afternoon to Minister for Education and Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins, Ministry Chief Executive Iona Holsted and dozens of other Ministry staff, and says the government has “a responsibility to prevent as many children as possible from becoming infected and re-infected” with Covid-19.

A spokesperson for Hipkins said it was up to the department to speak, but the email “does not reflect government policy.” They declined to say if Hipkins 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 prioritize the safety and well-being of their students, teachers and support staff. This includes choosing to require masks if it suits them,” he said.

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

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

“You did not specifically ask for my opinion on the issue of masks in schools, but the matter is too urgent and critical to wait for a request,” the official, who serves as senior data analyst, wrote in the message viewed by Redaction. The subject line of the email was “COVID19 Asleep at the wheel?”.

“I strongly support the content of the letter signed by around 150 New Zealand scientists and doctors and the call from the Disability Rights Commissioner urging us to restore the mask mandate in schools.”

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

“We still have a responsibility to prevent as many children as possible from becoming infected and re-infected with SARS2. It is a dangerous disease whose long-term effects are still unknown, and many of our tamariki are still not vaccinated. Without a mask, they endure very little protection at all.”

The email also directly criticized Hipkins’ comments on News Center 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 measurements in schools are based on what’s popular, not evidence. That’s not the kind leadership that we should expect or accept from our minister.”

The analyst concluded by saying it was the “duty” of officials to “prevent infection and re-infection as much as possible”.

“If you have decision-making power in this ministry, please use it to protect children. If you don’t, please speak to your boss and ask if this is really what we stand for.”

In comments to Newsroom before being made aware of the email, Hipkins said the mask mandate was still “under review” but he still wanted to let each school make its own decisions. own decisions. He also said he was confident schools had the information they needed to make evidence-based decisions.

“We have provided guidance in our school report cards to help head teachers and councils decide what is the right course of action based on their individual situation and community and we will continue to provide free masks to all schools and kura who need it,” Teddy told Newsroom.

But health advice to schools from the Department for Education has been contradictory in recent weeks. Although the general mask mandate has been repealed, the bulletins point out that masks are still “strongly encouraged”.

Messages about the health impacts of Covid-19 have not been clear.

A March 18 bulletin noted that “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 reported that “although more benign than Delta, Omicron is not a benign disease.” Two weeks later, the ministry came back saying that “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 severe impacts from Covid-19, including Long Covid. Brooks was one of the signatories to the open letter.

“We know it has an impact on children. We absolutely know they are less at risk, but is it okay? Is it okay to have the unfortunate child who catches Long Covid for life? ” she says.

“You can’t make schools decide for themselves. It’s all about inequality, right? Some schools do it well and some don’t. If you’re in the wrong school, you have big problems.”