Covid-19 Australia: why mandatory masks, lockdowns are not being returned

New sub-variants of Omicron BA. 4 and BA. 5 is being rolled out across all Australian states and territories, with total Covid hospitalizations to date exceeding 5,300.

Today, the number of active cases is greater than the total number of cases reported in all of 2020. Australia had more than 350,000 active cases nationwide on Friday, while fewer than 28,500 cases were reported in 2020.

Despite this, mask-wearing mandates and lockdown orders predicted to be reinstated just a few months ago are now words no one wants to utter.

Health professionals are calling for more, but there seems to be a big change in how governments and the public want to approach this new wave – so what has changed?

Five words explain it all

Australian National University (ANU) pathologist Professor Peter Collinon sums up the reluctance to bring back measures to stop the spread of Covid with the question: “When will you ever stop?”

With cases rising and hospitals filling up with Covid patients, many people are wondering if we will have another lockdown, but Prof Collignon told he doesn’t think further orders and regulations will help. Instead, we need to adapt to the new Covid climate.

“At this stage, imposing hard restrictions and lockdowns would be unwise…when would you ever stop?” he said.

While many Australians are eager to return to the freedom and unregulated lifestyle they enjoyed before Covid 2019, healthcare professionals such as Prof Colignon are adamant that “we have to change the way we think”.

“It won’t go away and we have to keep adapting,” he said.

winter cold

University of South Australia epidemiologist Prof Adrian Esterman said that while the new variants are not necessarily more serious, the surge in hospitalizations that accompanied them has led to a “terrible situation”.

Professor Esterman explained that Australia’s cold winter climate greatly influences the strength of this wave. Winter causes an increase in the number of people admitted to hospitals for other illnesses such as respiratory or heart problems. The spread of Covid through busy hospitals could then trigger new diagnoses and reported cases.

mixed messages

Changes in government and opposing views from politicians and healthcare professionals have made Covid uncertainty commonplace.

Professor Esterman told that “complacency” and “bad reporting from the government(s)” influenced public reaction to the new wave. He said state and federal governments need to provide “a much better message about the importance of additional vaccinations and the importance of wearing masks.”

While the wearing of masks is still encouraged in most places across all Australian states, the relaxation of mandatory rules has caused many Australians to move away from it altogether.

University of Melbourne epidemiologist Bruce Thompson recommends smarter leadership that strikes a middle ground between health workers and politicians. To prevent controversial messages, he said, “this is where our leaders need to actually go on camera wearing a mask and then take it off while they’re talking.”

“It is very difficult to predict how this will happen. [wave’s] is going to behave… so you need to find some kind of politics in something like the middle,” Professor Thompson said.

Booster vaccines

More than 95 per cent of Australians received their second dose of the vaccine, reaching nearly 20 million people. However, only 70.9% of the eligible population received three or more doses.

Professor Colignon emphasized that “the best protection we have is vaccination.” However, third doses have hardly increased in recent months.

Professor Thompson also explained that boosters have a huge impact on hospitalization and public safety. The vaccine “will be different for each of the new options that emerge… but it’s still effective.”

“The rules haven’t changed. The virus is still out…we can never forget it,” Professor Thompson said.

Prof Esterman attributed the move away from boosters in part to the failure of governments to adequately communicate Covid risks.

“We have to spend millions of dollars on advertising explaining to people why these additional vaccinations are so important and why it is so important to wear a face mask,” he said.

Our responsibility

The loosening of Covid rules and mandates has shifted the responsibility for responding to the virus into the hands of the public, Prof Esterman said.

“People now have a personal responsibility to protect themselves,” he said.

“We pay great attention to ensuring that we have drinking water. We need to pay more attention to making sure we have breathable air.”

Social distancing, wearing masks, sanitizing hands and keeping distance from each other can help reduce the impact of the pandemic. Professor Colignon said that because of the vaccines, “our risk is now much lower than that of an individual compared to two years ago…[but] the overall risk is greater. Therefore, experts strongly recommend keeping Covid safe for the benefit of society and those who may be hospitalized.

Experts agree that the pandemic has not only medical consequences, but also social and psychological consequences. Professor Collignon mentioned the consequences of not being able to attend school and learning difficulties, stating that “there were huge learning problems and people really fell due to school closures, although children themselves very rarely get serious complications from Covid.”

As the number of Covid cases increases and lockdowns are lifted, it seems that the responsibility for safety during the pandemic has shifted to the public.

Originally published as Response to current COVID-19 outbreak in Australia explained in five words