Former Australian Medical Association president Kerryn Phelps has called for an end to the “nonsensical” mask debate and for NSW to close its air border to Victoria.
Dr Phelps appeared on the Q+A panel on Monday night with fellow medical practitioners, including respiratory physician Dr Lucy Morgan, GP Dr Vyom Sharma and clinical nurse Abbey Fistrovic, and was initially asked whether she felt there should be criminal charges for people breaking quarantine.
While Dr Phelps deflected the legal question, as did all on the panel, she immediately called for all Australians to wear masks in public, particularly due to the disaster situation in Victoria.
She made that statement while also issuing a dire warning for her own state of NSW.
“The thing that we can do, which is such a simple thing, is to have everyone in the community in masks,” Dr Phelps said.
“We need to anticipate that there will be a next wave in NSW.
“At the moment, the numbers are relatively low, but there’s nothing to say they will remain low.”
Host Hamish Macdonald asked Dr Phelps if she thought masks should be “compulsory” in NSW, or at least Sydney.
“We need to head towards them being compulsory,” Dr Phelps said.
“We know with aerosol transmission now, airborne transmission, wearing a mask is some of the best protection that you can have – you protect yourself, you protect others.
“There’s been a nonsensical debate for months now, which has been so frustrating because it has not been evidence-based about wearing masks.
“It is one of the single most responsible things that we can do as members of the community to protect each other.”
Dr Phelps said NSW would also be well served by shutting its air border with Victoria.
“I’m concerned that there are still planes coming in from Melbourne to Sydney without any checking and with people just being asked to self-isolate in Sydney when they arrive,” she said, to a question about whether Australian families will be able to gather interstate at Christmas.
“We don’t know how many people are actually doing the self-isolating when they arrive.
“There are 17 planes coming from Sydney to Melbourne tomorrow [Tuesday] – that’s not a closed border.
“We know there are thousands of active cases in Victoria, there could be up to 10 times as many people who are infected who don’t know it and we’re just letting people get on planes without having a test before they get on the plane, arriving in Sydney and dispersing into the community.
“NSW is on a precipice and unless we take it seriously and actually have an effective closed border, we are going to see leakage of these cases from Victoria over to NSW.”
Aged care deaths were ‘avoidable’
While the NSW and Victoria scenario was one key theme of the episode, so was aged care.
Spiros Vasilakis, who lost his mother Maria to COVID-19 at the St Basil’s nursing home outbreak, and Christine Golding, whose mother was also a resident there, both appeared on the show.
Ms Golding and Mr Vasilakis raised questions about the sector and why it was not adequately prepared.
Dr Phelps said the deaths playing out at aged-care homes were “avoidable”.
“There should have been a preparedness audit done of aged care homes as soon as we knew there was a COVID outbreak in Australia,” she said.
“It was so predictable aged care would be a vulnerable sector and indeed it has been, and it was so avoidable.”
She said issues related to understaffing in aged-care homes had gone on for two decades.
Those comments were backed by clinical nurse Abbey Fistrovic, who worked as an aged-care nurse earlier in her career.
“Sometimes you have one registered nurse for a facility with 100 residents,” Ms Fistrovic said.
“We have created this perfect storm, which has ended in tragedy for people with families in aged care. But we knew about it.
“We knew of these problems, we’ve known them for decades.”
Asked if she felt the current situation with patients of some aged-care homes dying was preventable, Ms Fistrovic said it was.
Queensland Liberal MP Andrew Laming, who has worked as a medical practitioner, defended the government’s response, but Labor’s spokeswoman for aged care, Ged Kearney, said the government had failed the sector and that its funding should be made transparent.
“This is a workforce that’s working in a sector that has a culture problem – where it is privately operated, they are organisations that are run for profit,” Ms Kearney said.
“It’s part of a broader systemic failure that the whole system is facing.
“There’s lack of accountability and transparency for the funding that goes into aged care.
“People may not know across the whole aged-care sector but about $20 billion of federal funding goes into that sector without proper accountability or transparency.”