Mask mandates should still be an option, AMA warns

It feels like the pandemic is over and restrictions have fallen by the wayside, but health experts are urging the government to bring back some measures.

Federal health minister Mark Butler told the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday that he had received no advice on reintroducing broad mask mandates for public spaces.

“The chief health officers [from the states and federal governments] met in the last couple of days and there was [no] such advice given by them.

“I think the broad view is that in this phase of the pandemic mask mandates and things like that are best done in a targeted way.”

Read: COVID antiviral treatments to become available to more Aussies

But with COVID case numbers still sitting at around 37,000 per day in Australia, top health experts are warning the government not to rule out bringing masks back more widely.

Dr Chris Moy, vice-president of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), told The New Daily that by refusing to bring masks back, the government risked sending mixed messages to the public on the severity of the current wave.

“They should not be ruling them out because it’s undermining messaging,” he said.

“All patients are hearing is that the government refuses to consider mask mandates, rather than anything about how masks are incredibly positive in reducing the speed of spread for relatively little inconvenience compared to other restrictions.”

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The AMA’s position was backed up by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), which said masks may be the key to reducing current case and hospitalisation numbers, when combined with vaccination.

“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,” the group 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.”

Face mask mandates are generally the purview of state and territory governments and rules differ greatly in different jurisdictions.

Read: Even mild cases can lead to long COVID, study finds

Wearing a mask outdoors is not required anywhere in Australia, while most rules for indoor spaces have also been relaxed, except for high-risk settings such as age care facilities and public transport.

Enforcing mask mandates is also a challenge.

In Victoria, the responsibility for mask enforcement has fallen to Victoria Police for most of the pandemic. Last year, VicPol issued more than 3000 public health breaches on transport, mostly for failure to wear a mask.

The job now falls to Public Transport Victoria’s (PTV) authorised officers, who since February have only handed out 58 fines for failure to wear a mask. This equates to roughly one fine every two days.

But many more than that have been maskless on public transport, with officers confirming they had spoken to more than 66,000 people about masks and had handed out more than 59,000 free masks to those without one.

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Brad Lockyer
Brad Lockyer
Brad has deep knowledge of retirement income, including Age Pension and other government entitlements, as well as health, money and lifestyle issues facing older Australians. Keen interests in current affairs, politics, sport and entertainment. Digital media professional with more than 10 years experience in the industry.
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