As the number of Covid cases continues to rise in Australia, there is a growing call for the return of mandatory mask-wearing in some settings.
There are calls for the return of masks in Australia as the number of Covid in the country continues to rise amid a third wave caused by infectious Omicron BA. 4 and BA. 5 sub-options.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said after Saturday’s National Cabinet Extraordinary Meeting that states and territories have agreed to provide consistent health messages to encourage people to follow the advice of Chief Medical Officer Prof Paul Kelly.
While masks were not mandatory, Mr Albanese “strongly encouraged” Australians to wear them in certain indoor areas.
“These include wearing masks indoors where it is appropriate, where people mingle and cannot maintain social distancing, it makes sense to strongly encourage it,” he said.
But Australian Medical Association President Dr Omar Khorshid said mask requirements should be reintroduced if necessary.
“If this decision (mandates for masks) is necessary, then this decision should be made by the prime ministers, and in this they should be supported by the Commonwealth government,” he said following the National Cabinet.
The move comes after Victoria Health Minister Mary Ann Thomas said she ignored advice from Acting Chief Medical Officer Ben Cowie to reintroduce mandatory mask use in some settings.
“The Chief Medical Officer gave his advice and I took his advice, except that I decided not to renew the mandate to wear a mask in some of the conditions recommended to me,” she said last Tuesday.
“The advice of the Chief Medical Officer was to make it mandatory to wear masks in preschools and schools, as well as in retail and some hospitality establishments for workers in these areas.
“I have made the decision, based on the advice I have received, that the continued mandatory wearing of masks is not the most effective way to communicate the importance of wearing masks.
“We need to empower Victorians to make their own decisions.”
Instead, the government “strongly recommended” that masks be worn indoors and in public places.
Victorian AMA President Dr. Roderick McRae has been a continual critic of the government’s decision since it became known and urged Ms Thomas to reconsider her decision.
“Once again, I urge the Victorian Minister of Health to reconsider the decision on a limited range of mandatory masks in circumstances where we are aware of this massive transmission of a highly contagious virus,” he said in an interview with the Today Show on Sunday.
“It’s all about keeping as many people in Victoria in good health as possible, and the same will apply across Australia as much as possible.”
Queensland Prime Minister Annastacia Palaszczuk held a press conference after the National Cabinet meeting in which she “strongly urged” people to wear masks indoors.
“I urge the people of Queensland, let’s all do the right thing and wear masks while we’re indoors,” she said on Saturday.
“I urge when schools resume on Monday, children will wear masks in schools, and so will teachers.
“It is very clear that the best thing we can do, and it doesn’t cause us much inconvenience, is to put on these masks and go get a booster.”
NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell previously noted that masks and other restrictions could be reintroduced in every school if cases continue to rise.
“Of course, I would say that we absolutely feel the pressure of Covid-19 and flu in our schools; it’s out of the question,” she said on Friday.
But Australian Financial Review columnist Jennifer Hewitt said the government “can no longer afford” to return mask mandates due to economic and social concerns.
“It’s political payback for not making their own decisions before and just relying on advice that seemed to vary from state to state,” she told ABC insiders on Sunday.
“I think we’re in a position right now where they can’t afford it anymore. They can’t hide behind it anymore. The economy doesn’t allow it, but more importantly, the public doesn’t want it anymore. They’re just over it.”
Australian and Network 10 editor Peter Van Onselen added that the country is “accustomed to politicians hiding behind professional medical advice.”
“You get the impression that, objectively, if nothing else is taken into account as outlined here, mask mandates will do more good than harm. No questions asked, right? But the question is where do you draw the line in these things,” he said.
“Health experts seem to be increasingly of the opinion that as this wave approaches, mandatory mask-wearing should happen.
“It’s amazing to see politicians reacting to this in such different ways. This does not mean that they are right about public policy, but they are politicians, and they bear consequences, good or bad, depending on where they transfer their decisions.
Age journalist Osman Farooqi admitted he “chuckled” watching Ms Thomas comment that mandates were not being introduced after all the strict rules and restrictions imposed by the Victorian government over the past two years.
“After we lived two years with some of the most extraordinary, unprecedented measures being introduced in this state under the guise of ‘well, the health board says so’… now that same government is saying ‘it’s really just one factor that we’re taking into account our decision-making process,” he said in an interview with Insiders.
Mr. Farooqi said the change of position indicated a shift in policy and public acceptance.
“There was a period when people were very afraid of what this virus would do to our society, so it was quite popular for the government to introduce something that people thought could never happen in this country,” he said.
“Now everything has changed. After two years of self-isolation, after the economy hit, people lost money, they couldn’t see their family and friends, people don’t want to go back to that.
Ms Hewitt also questioned how effective mask mandates would be if they were not strictly enforced.
“If you look at, for example, public transport in Melbourne, where it should be mandatory in public transport. Well, at least half of the people are now without masks,” she said.
“You are also trying to get people back into the office, for example. It’s hard at the moment, it gets harder as this wave builds up. But the idea of sitting in an office and wearing masks just won’t work.”
Originally published as Mask mandates could return if Covid situation worsens in Australia