Medical experts have criticised federal and state governments for “inconsistent” messaging around the looming winter virus wave, with new face mask rules all but ruled out nationwide.
It comes as trade unions launch a fresh appeal to the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, to reverse the decision to scrap paid leave for Covid-positive people forced to isolate, calling on the Labor government to reinstate the allowance until isolation rules change.
“We have a population believing, and governments delivering, that Covid is in the rear-view mirror, that we’re over the worst of it, that it’s time to do away with any of the measures and move on with life,” said infectious disease expert Prof Brendan Crabb, the CEO of the Burnet Institute.
“It’s always been wrong to do that, ever since Omicron arrived.”
State and federal governments have escalated warnings that Covid case numbers are set to explode in coming weeks, as Australia battles fresh outbreaks of the BA.4 and BA.5 variants. The federal health minister, Mark Butler, this week warned cases were “going to continue to rise for some time yet”, with Covid hospital admissions currently at their highest level since February.
Australia recorded nearly 42,000 cases and 35 deaths in the last 24 hours. On Friday, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) revised down its official advice on reinfection periods from 12 weeks to 28 days, warning the new variants “are associated with increased immune escape and we are likely to see rates of reinfection rise”.
But despite the dire warnings, politicians have poured cold water on talk of reinstating mandates on masks, vaccinations or public health measures, even as they encourage people to voluntarily wear masks.
Authorities in Queensland and New South Wales said mask mandates were unlikely to be reintroduced. While the new Victorian health minister, Mary-Anne Thomas, did not rule out mask rules or work-from-home orders in the future, she told 3AW radio “various ideas are floated but no ideas have been taken”.
Butler said on Wednesday that expanding mask mandates would be “difficult to maintain” but recommended people wear face coverings in crowded or high-risk areas.
In its statement recommending an expansion of eligibility for fourth Covid vaccine shots, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) said masks could be key in reducing case and hospital numbers, on top of vaccinations.
“Atagi advises that other public health and social measures, in addition to vaccination, will have the greatest impact against the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 surge in infections,” it said.
“This includes increased use of masks and increasing the use of antiviral treatment in people diagnosed with Covid-19, including in people aged 50 years and above.”
Crabb said Australian authorities had “dug ourselves into a strategic hole” in winding back public health measures, concerned people may not follow Covid regulations in future.
He suggested authorities could more strongly recommend the wearing of masks in the hopes of building public support before any mandate.
“Vaccines are brilliant, but not enough. Nobody wants to go into lockdown or do anything restrictive if we can help it, but we need to say, ‘here are the tools, we’d like you to use them’,” Crabb said.
Dr Chris Moy, the vice-president of the Australian Medical Association, was critical of politicians ruling out mask mandates, which he said was “totally premature”.
“We do understand the difficulty in getting the public to reverse their thinking, after an election campaign which created a false sense of security. But now we’re facing another wave, and I’ve heard more concern among health authorities than I’ve heard for a long time.”
Separately, the Australian Council of Trade Unions is calling on the federal government to reinstate paid pandemic leave for people who have to isolate after Covid infection. The payment, brought in to encourage people to follow isolation rules if they had used up all their employer-provided sick leave, ended on 30 June.
“We’re concerned the premature end to this payment will leave thousands of workers with the impossible choice of obeying isolation rules or paying their bills,” the ACTU president, Michele O’Neil, said.
“We learned this lesson early in the pandemic, and that’s dangerous for them, the people they work with and the whole community. This is a public health issue.”
O’Neil said every state and territory still required Covid-positive patients to isolate for a week, and called on Albanese to reinstate the payment.
On 1 July, Butler defended the change by saying the government didn’t have “the financial capacity to continue to fund these emergency measures forever”.
“This is a situation very broadly in the labour market that applies to all illnesses. There’s not the ability of the taxpayer to continue to fund every gap in the labour market for people who don’t have access to sick leave,” he told Radio National.