News Coronavirus ‘Common sense’, not mandates on COVID: Morrison
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‘Common sense’, not mandates on COVID: Morrison

Victoria COVID-19 cases
Victoria is considering tightening indoor mask mandates, as testing sites continue to be inundated. Photo: AAP
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Prime Minister Scott Morrison has flagged more mask wearing – but is resisting the nation’s top medical adviser’s push for mandates.

Instead, Mr Morrison urged “common sense” to combat rising virus cases across the country.

“That’s how we live with the virus into the future,” he said on Tuesday.

“In my home state of NSW, people are already wearing masks. They are not being fined if they don’t, because Australians know what is a common sense, responsible action to look after their own health and to look after the health of those around them.”

“We’re not going back to shutting down people’s lives. We’re going forward to live with this virus with common sense.”

Mr Morrison said – after two years of living with the pandemic – it was time to shift from “mandates to responsibility”.

“The time for that heavy hand is behind us,” he said.

“None of us want to go back to lockdowns … and the way we avoid that is by ensuring that people practise responsible behaviours, because, you know, COVID is not going anywhere any time soon.”

Chief medical officer Paul Kelly has written to Mr Morrison and state leaders, urging them to reinstate mandatory masks indoors as COVID cases spike to ever-higher record levels.

Mr Morrison has also convened a snap national cabinet meeting for Wednesday to discuss ways to keep a lid on the Omicron spread.

But, as NSW became the first Australian jurisdiction to record more than 3000 cases in a 24-hour period, with 3057 on Tuesday, and Victoria’s cases also remained high, some states and territories are already moving.

The ACT has reintroduced mandatory masks in indoor settings from Wednesday, and will also limit visitors to aged-care homes.

The ACT has had 103 local COVID infections in the past week – up from 37 the week before. Most are Omicron.

Chief health officer Dr Kerryn Coleman said Tuesday’s announcement was a “common-sense step”. The rules will be reviewed in January.

Victoria is also considering tightening indoor mask mandates, although it has promised no wholesale restriction changes for Christmas gatherings and major events.

Acting Premier James Merlino said Victoria would consider Dr Kelly’s advice before deciding whether to reintroduce compulsory masks in hospitality and entertainment venues.

“Mask wearing is a prudent common-sense measure. It can be inconvenient but it’s a small inconvenience for a significant public health benefit,” he said.

“There’s no restrictions on getting together with loved ones, with family and friends to celebrate Christmas, to celebrate New Year, to enjoy the summer. None of those things are changing.”

There will also be no change in the unlimited crowd cap for the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, despite fears it could become an Omicron superspreader event.

In the absence of Premier Daniel Andrews, Mr Merlino will stand-in as the Victorian representative at Wednesday’s “informal” virtual meeting of national cabinet.

There he will join South Australia in calling for the COVID-19 vaccine booster interval to be reduced for a second time, down from five months.

“I want it as short as possible,” Mr Merlino said.

Victoria had 1245 COVID cases and six deaths on Tuesday, as testing sites were again inundated.

Testers processed 66,888 results from Monday. Demand was also high on Tuesday, fuelled by Victorians needing negative virus tests for interstate travel.

At least 15 Melbourne testing sites were temporarily closed early in the day, after reaching capacity.

Mr Merlino said the state had recently added sites, and extended opening hours after anticipating increased demand.

“I  am asking for people’s patience – I know this has been a very difficult time and it’s quite an inconvenience,” he said.

“But for the most part, across all of our 260 sites, we’re getting through [tests] in 40 minutes on average.”

There have been similar issues in South Australia with some people waiting up to eight hours to get tested. Premier Steven Marshall said on Tuesday the requirement for COVID testing on arrival would be dumped immediately to help ease the backlog.

SA had a record 154 infections, including 134 acquired locally.

Arrivals from NSW, Victoria and the ACT will no longer be required to have a swab on arrival unless they have symptoms. But they must still get a negative test within 72 hours.

“Our focus now is making sure South Australians have access to a rapid PCR test,” Mr Marshall said on Tuesday.

australia covid christmas
The queue for COVID testing in Melbourne’s CBD on Monday morning.

NSW spike causes alarm

In NSW, Opposition Leader Chris Minns was isolating at home on Tuesday after one of his staffers contracted the virus.

He criticised Premier Dominic Perrottet’s refusal to heed calls to reintroduce mask mandates indoors.

“The main thing here is that Christmas isn’t ruined and we don’t go back into lockdown,” he told Sydney radio 2GB.

“We’ve gotten used to wearing masks, there’s strong evidence they work – preventing the disease from spreading more than it otherwise would.”

The Royal Australian College of Physicians is the latest medical body urging tighter virus rules as Omicron spreads. President John Wilson said he was wary of NSW’s increasing COVID numbers.

“If not checked, a surge in cases will further burden our already exhausted health systems due to an overwhelming rise in hospitalisations,” he said on Tuesday.

“The relaxation of restrictions in some jurisdictions, especially those associated with mask-wearing, QR code check-ins and large gatherings, can have dire consequences.”

Further north, Queensland will halve the quarantine period for fully vaccinated close contacts of virus cases.

The mandatory quarantine period will move from 14 to seven days from Wednesday.

Queensland had a record 86 infections on Tuesday. As daily cases approach triple figures, chief health officer John Gerrard said the trend was following a pattern of roughly doubling every 48 hours.

“We’re seeing about two cases of Omicron diagnosed for every one case of Delta,” he said.

“Omicron has become the dominant virus here in Queensland.”

– AAP