An Auckland city councillor and District Health Board member fears hospitals could become hubs for Covid-19 spread as healthcare workers are being told not to wear masks while they work.
Paul Young, councillor for Botany and Counties Manukau DHB member, says he has received multiple complaints from patients about being attended to by nurses who are not wearing masks.
He has also been contacted by several nurses who are worried for their own safety.
"Nurses complain that they are not allowed to wear masks and patients saying they are not seeing hospital health workers wearing them," Young said.
He is calling for this to be attended to urgently before hospitals too become new centres for community outbreaks.
"If there is an outbreak in hospital, who will take responsibility?" Young asked.
Healthcare workers say they are being told not to wear masks around their hospitals amid the coronavirus outbreak as they might scare patients.
DHBs however say they are following "international best practice" on when workers should be wearing masks.
A nurse working in Auckland City Hospital, who did not want to be named, said she and her colleagues were told to remove their masks because they created anxiety for patients.
"Personally I think it is the opposite because it gives patients assurance rather than fear, but we were told that was the instruction from the top and it's what we have to follow," she said.
"We want to wear the surgical masks also to feel safer at work because we know some patients who have been tested negative later became positive for Covid-19," the ward nurse said.
The nurse said she and her colleagues had brought masks in from their home countries because those at the hospitals were being kept under lock and key.
"It is so difficult for us to get permission to even get a single mask for our use," she said.
Another nurse from Auckland City Hospital confirmed she and colleagues had been asked to remove masks, despite bringing them from home.
"They say the [emergency department] is doing screening and they think that's safe enough to protect us ward nurses.
"But we're just not sure if it's in the air - we know some people have tested negative then became positive.
"Obviously we're only wearing surgical masks so we're not 100 per cent protected but we feel a bit safer."
A Ministry of Health spokeswoman said it was currently making a list prioritising who should have access to PPE based on risk of exposure to Covid-19.
"This prioritisation will be finalised by the Infection Prevention and Control sub group of the Covid-19 technical advisory group," she said.
"Once the advice is finalised we will advise the health sector and make it available on our website."
She said this would make it clear on which PPE (personal protection equipment) is needed and for what, and for DHBs to ration out their PPE.
"We already have masks in our DHBs and in other parts of the healthcare system. We will replenish them if supplies are running low.
"Hospital staff do not routinely need to wear masks, particularly if there is no risk of them coming into contact with someone who may have a Covid-19 infection."
She said only had a small number of people with Covid-19 have required hospital care.
"There are very intensive precautions taken to protect staff and others in the hospital.
"DHBs are the organisations on the ground who have PPE. We are working with DHBs to bring distribution into a national process. We will arrange distribution to others including home support and community support workers, pharmacy, etc."
An Auckland DHB spokeswoman told the Herald yesterday that the appropriate use of PPE in different clinical scenarios is based on international best practice and guided by its infection control experts.
She said the safety of employees and patients was "our top priority at all times".
The Herald has also been told of similar incidents at Middlemore Hospital in South Auckland and at a hospital in the Waikato - in both cases because of concerns that patients might panic.
A Counties Manukau Health spokesperson said all necessary steps were being taken to ensure "quality of care" for all patients while responding to Covid-19.
"This includes following PPE protocols and the correct use of clinically appropriate PPE. Guided by our infection control experts we have processes in place to make sure that clinical and frontline workers have the right protection when they are caring for patients."
Waikato DHB has also been asked for comment.
Yesterday, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield addressed some of those concerns at a media conference saying while health workers should be using precautions if someone had symptoms, if someone was not symptomatic the risk was very low.
Bloomfield has previously said the Ministry of Health has stockpiled around 18 million masks as part of its pandemic planning and today reiterated that there was no shortage - saying supplies would be replenished as soon as they ran low.
Hospital staff did not need to routinely wear masks, especially if they were not likely to come in contact with Covid-19, he said.
A petition calling for all healthcare workers to have personal protective equipment that they can wear at any time has garnered more than 5000 signatures. The change.org petition calls for hospitals to remove restrictions on mask wearing and for the Ministry of Health to provide enough face masks to all staff in hospitals across New Zealand.
On Wednesday night the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) also called for all nurses to be given protective equipment.
NZNO kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku told the Herald she was not aware of any nurses being specifically told not to wear masks. However, nurses out in the community were reporting they did not have the protective equipment they needed.
The union was meeting daily with DHBs to address issues including shortages of PPE. It expected a national plan to be in place by the end of the week and that full PPE including N95 masks would be provided to be used by nurses as soon as there was any risk.