Governments suffering ‘political payback’ amid mask mandate calls

Australian governments are suffering “political payback” for their pandemic decisions as debate rages over whether mask mandates should be reintroduced.

It comes as the country’s Covid numbers are continuing to surge amid a third wave fuelled by the infectious Omicron BA. 4 and BA. 5 subvariants.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said following Saturday’s snap National Cabinet meeting that states and territories have agreed to deliver consistent health messaging to encourage people to follow chief medical officer professor Paul Kelly’s recommendations.

“These include wearing masks indoors where appropriate, where people are mixing and can’t have social distancing, it makes sense for that to be highly encouraged,” he said.

Camera IconAustralian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese encouraged masks to be worn indoors ‘where appropriate’. NCA NewsWire / Jeremy Piper Credit: News Corp Australia

So far there has been no indication that mask mandates will be returning, despite concerns from health professionals and renewed Covid advice from state and federal government.

Australian Financial Review columnist Jennifer Hewett said the government “can no longer afford” to bring back mask mandates due to economic and public concerns.

“This is the political payback for them not taking their own decisions before and just relying on advice which seemed to change from state to state,” she told ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.

“I think now we’re in a position where they can no longer afford to do that. They can no longer hide behind that. The economy doesn‘t allow it but, more importantly, the public don’t want it anymore. They are just over this.”

The Australian and Network 10 editor Peter Van Onselen added the country “got used to politicians hiding behind professional health advice”.

“You get the impression that objectively, if nothing else gets brought into the consideration set here, mask mandates would do more good than harm. No question, right? But it‘s a matter of where do you draw the line on these things,” he said.

Camera IconMasks have not been mandate but are strongly encouraged in certain indoor settings. NCA NewsWire / Sarah Matray Credit: News Corp Australia

“The health experts seem to be increasingly of the view that, with this wave coming around, that mandating masks is something that should happen.

“It’s just fascinating to see politicians so different in their response to that. It doesn’t mean they’re right on the public policy but they’re the politician and they wear the consequences, good or bad, on where they shift their decision-making.”

Following National Cabinet, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk held a press conference where she “strongly encouraged” people to wear masks indoors.

“I am urging Queenslanders, let‘s all do the right thing and let’s wear our masks while we’re indoors,” she said on Saturday.

“I’m strongly encouraging when school goes back on Monday for children to be wearing masks in schools as well as teachers.

“It’s very clear that the best thing that we can do and it’s not a huge inconvenience to us, is to wear these masks and go and get your booster.”

Camera IconQueensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk speaking after National Cabinet. David Clark Credit: News Corp Australia

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell had flagged earlier that masks and other restrictions could be reintroduced on a school-by-school basis if cases keep rising.

“Certainly what I would say is we are absolutely feeling the pressure of Covid-19 and flu in our schools; there’s no question of that,” she said on Friday.

It comes after Victorian Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas revealed she ignored advice from the state’s acting chief health officer Ben Cowie to reintroduce mask mandates in some settings.

“The chief health officer has provided his advice and I have accepted his advice, except that I have chosen not to extend mandates for mask wearing in some of the settings that were recommended to me,” she said last Tuesday.

“The advice from the chief health officer was to mandate mask wearing in early childhood and school settings, and indeed in retail and in some hospitality settings for workers in those areas.

“I made a decision based on the advice that I had received that further mandating masks was not the most effective way to get the message out about the importance of mask wearing.

“We need to empower Victorians to make their own decisions.”

Instead the government “strongly recommended” that masks be worn indoors and in crowded settings.

Camera IconVictorian Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas ignored advice from the state’s chief health officer. NCA NewsWire / Andrew Henshaw Credit: News Corp Australia

Age journalist Osman Faruqi admitted he “chuckled” while watching Ms Thomas’ comments back after all the stringent rules and restrictions the Victorian government brought in over the last two years.

“After living through two years of some of the most extraordinary, unprecedented measures being introduced in this state all under the cover of, ‘well the health advice says this’ … now the same government is saying ‘actually that’s just one factor we’re taking into our decision-making process’,” he said on Insiders.

Mr Faruqi said the change in stance indicated a shift in politics and the public’s acceptance levels.

“There was a period when people were very scared of what this virus was going to do to our society that it was quite popular for the government to introduce what people thought could never happen in this country,” he said.

“Now things have shifted. After two years of lockdowns, after the economy taking a hit, of people losing money, of not being able to see family and friends, people don‘t want to go back to that.

MASKS Melbourne
Camera IconCommuters wearing masks on a Melbourne tram. NCA NewsWire / David Crosling Credit: News Corp Australia

Ms Hewett also questioned how effective mask mandates would be unless they were strictly enforced.

“If you look on public transport in Melbourne for example, where … it‘s supposed to be mandatory on public transport. Well, at least half the people are not wearing masks now,” she said.

“You’re also trying to get people back into the office for example. That’s hard at the moment it’s getting harder as this wave surges. But the idea of sitting in an office and wearing masks, that’s just not going to work.”

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