Victorian Deputy Premier Jacinta Allan has defended a letter sent to parents of schoolchildren that strongly recommended students wear masks indoors for the remainder of winter.
As health authorities reported another 25 COVID deaths in Victoria and a further 26 in NSW on Tuesday, Ms Allan said the letter sent to school communities on Monday night was “entirely consistent with the advice” given by the state’s health minister last week.
“Nothing’s changed,” she said, batting away suggestions that the letter amounted to a “mandate by stealth”.
The letter contained a “strong recommendation” that students wear mask indoors and was signed by the heads of public, independent and Catholic schools.
“We’re asking all students aged eight and over and staff to wear masks when in class from now to the end of winter,” the letter read.
“Children won’t be required to wear masks when they are outdoors.”
The letter came after the Victorian government was criticised last week for rejecting advice from the state’s chief health officer to introduce an indoor mask mandate.
Despite doctors and epidemiologists warning of growing pressure on Victoria’s health system, the Victorian government has chosen to strongly recommend indoor mask-wearing instead of introducing state-wide mandates.
Ms Allan reaffirmed that position on Tuesday morning.
“Wearing masks indoors is not that hard to do,” she said.
“The advice is a strong recommendation for masks to be worn indoors.”
VIC reports 25 deaths
Victoria reported 12,201 cases on Tuesday, along with 25 more fatalities and 897 patients with the virus in the state’s hospitals.
Victorian Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas said the recommendation for masks in schools was not a mandate, but it was her advice.
“This is what we want to see, the advice being distributed through as many channels as possible,” she told ABC radio in Melbourne.
The recommendation came as a leading virus expert called for a rethink of Australia’s COVID-19 strategy.
As numbers continue to climb in the latest spike of Omicron cases, Burnet Institute chief executive Brendan Crabb said health authorities should be looking at interventions to keep case numbers at a steady, low level.
“We had this model that says it doesn’t really matter how much COVID is in the community, we want to protect out elderly and most vulnerable people and keep our hospitals running. That strategy has chosen or proven not to work very well,” he told the ABC.
“We are going through a rise at the moment that should peak sometime in the next month – it looks like a very worrying high level, but they never go low.”
COVID reset needed
Professor Crabb said a reset was needed to help get cases to a lower baseline level, involving more vaccines, measures for more clean air, as well as testing and isolation.
He indicated a collective mentality was needed to work together on renewing virus strategies – and that without this more large waves of cases were on the cards.
“We’re getting there – we’re just a long way behind the eight ball. We have this ‘COVID is in the rear-view mirror’ mentality,” he said.
Australia had 39,000 more cases on Monday with a further 31 fatalities.
Nearly 5000 people nationwide are in hospital.
While case numbers are increasing, some have called for a relaxation of isolation requirements for people with the virus.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet wants a review of isolation requirements for workers who have tested positive, citing a need to balance competing health issues.
However, the comments were at odds with the stance of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. He said health officials would continue to examine isolation measures, but the current spike in infections meant it wasn’t the right time to change existing requirements.
Employees who test positive and are unable to work and access sick leave will be able to access the $750 isolation payment from Wednesday, following moves by the government to reinstate the payments.
They will be in effect until the end of September, with the cost shared between the Commonwealth and states and territories.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers said the government remained flexible on a possible extension to the September 30 deadline.
Australia’s latest 24-hour COVID data
NSW: 13,554 cases, 26 deaths, 2205 in hospital with 60 in ICU
Victoria: 12,201 cases, 25 deaths, 897 in hospital with 34 in ICU
Northern Territory: 671 cases, no deaths, 63 in hospital, one in ICU
Queensland: 9992, 18 deaths, 983 in hospital, 24 in ICU