Covid 19 coronavirus: Wellington commuters face anti-mask propaganda on train

By Charlotte Cook for RNZ

“What’s all the fuss about masks?” is the title of an official-looking pamphlet that was being thrust in the face of Wellington train commuters yesterday.

The flyer by Billy Te Kahika’s group The Freedom Alliance, perfectly matched the Covid-19 colour scheme, came complete with Ministry of Health logos and even featured the director general of health.

It told commuters all the reasons masks were bad and provided them with an exemption card they were encouraged to use.

At Wellington station people were confused, concerned and supportive of the flyers.

“They should be able to prosecute the people that are doing it. They’re impersonating the ministry, it’s not legal,” a passenger said.

Another commuter planned to read it but would take no notice of the advice, while others refused to take the pamphlet at all.

But some were supportive.

“I don’t really know much, but from what I’ve looked into it’s not black and white whether masks are actually effective, so I think it’s good both sides are being communicated.”

Volunteers for The Freedom Alliance positioned themselves at stations throughout the Wellington region on Tuesday handing out the flyer to commuters at peak hours.

One of them, Mike, a self-confessed conspiracy theorist, admitted he did not know they had not been approved by the ministry and had not actually read it.

“Well, this whole Covid thing is not just masks, it’s everything. It’s about the lockdown. It’s about the vaccinations. This is only a tiny element.”

He said the exemption card, which he had pinned to his shirt had come from the Ministry of Health and they had worked.

Mike was right – to a point.

Exemption cards can be downloaded from the website but are reserved for people who have a specific medical or health reason for not being able to wear a mask.

The Ministry of Health said the card was only being issued through Healthline and Disabled Persons Organisations for the small number of people with conditions preventing them from using a face covering.

“To help with this, an exemption card has been developed that can be shown when in public if necessary, for example, to transport operators.

“Users are not required to show the card, but they may feel comfortable showing something official that confirms they are exempt from wearing a face covering.

“We encourage Kiwis to do the right thing and work together to encourage fair and responsible use of the exemption card”

Jacqui Southey came across the group waiting in the dark at a Masterton station – they asked if she had heard “the latest about Covid?”

“I was actually like, ‘well, no I haven’t’, so I accepted this information and carried on up to the main station platform where it was light I started to read and could see that it was a pamphlet basically full of nonsense and propaganda, and appearing to misuse logos and Ministry of Health information to try and look legitimate.”

Southey said once onboard the train conductor announced the information was not official.

Passengers from across the Wairarapa, Lower Hutt and Wellington have reported being given the flyer.

Metlink general manager Scott Gallacher said they found out about the flyers on Tuesday morning and had notified Wellington’s Regional Emergency office, the public health team and the ministry.

“Metlink continues to follow and promote the Government’s advice so we can keep all of our valuable staff and passengers safe.”

Gallacher said he hoped the material had not upset or influenced any passengers.

Southey said she took no notice of the advice but the messaging was extremely concerning.

“I’m quite angry actually.

“Angry that we need to trust our health system and we need to trust the information that’s going out publicly.

“And on the whole, I feel we’ve been able to do that.

“So for the logos to be misused and for people to be almost tricked into taking this information or thinking it’s official is really appalling.”

Southey said the ministry needed to publicise that it had nothing to do with the pamphlets and that the information was wrong.

In a statement, the Government said people should only use trusted sources of information.

“Spreading misinformation in this way is dangerous and undermines the good work that everyone else has done to keep Covid-19 out of our communities.

“The best sources for accurate and reliable Covid-19 information are Unite Against Covid-19 website, Ministry of Health and trusted sources such as DHBs.”

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