Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hopes Australia won’t be plunged into lockdown, despite soaring COVID cases – even as its burgeoning wave is expected to be weeks from peaking.
Mr Albanese’s concerns came as one of the nation’s top doctors said he expected state and territory leaders would soon realise that “mask mandates are required” to tackle surging infections.
Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid said the country’s spiking hospitalisation rates had become “pretty scary”.
There were more than 5000 COVID patients in Australian hospitals on Wednesday – and a further 90 reported deaths.
“I don’t know how far they [politicians] can let the numbers go while still saying we don’t need mask mandates,” Dr Khorshid told The Guardian on Wednesday.
“Everything we’ve heard from the federal government and various state health ministers and premiers is that they’re not about to introduce mandates.
“But governments are ultimately going to be held to account by the public for their failure to navigate this whole process. At some point, I think it’s quite likely we will have a period of mask mandates in certain states.”
Across the country, health experts have stepped up their urging for people to wear masks indoors – but so far there have been no mandates.
On Wednesday, it was revealed that Victorian health authorities had urged a return to work-from-home orders, as well as mandated masks in some situations, as the state’s case numbers exploded. Both were overruled by the state government.
In Queensland, Deputy Premier Steven Miles said people should carry a mask – but stopped short of a mandate.
“Have a mask with you at all times, there is a lot of COVID in the community right now and there is a lot of people in hospital,” Mr Miles said.
“Now that we have a vaccine, the set of measures that we put in place are necessarily different, because … this kind of situation is going to continue.
“The measures that were put in place are the kinds of measures that we can continue to implement when we see these waves.”
Asked on Wednesday if border closures or lockdowns might return, Mr Albanese responded: “I hope not”.
“I think people are done with those sort of economic restrictions … when I met with the state premiers and chief ministers last week, no one’s arguing for those economic constraints to be brought back,” he told Melbourne radio 3AW.
He outlined “four key differences” to help get through the latest COVID wave – booster shots, access to antivirals, “encouraged” mask-wearing, and staying at home if sick.
But he again ruled out mandates and ordering people to work from home.
“The truth is that if you have mandates, you’ve got to enforce them,” he said.
And: “Businesses will continue to make those decisions” about working from home.
Mr Albanese said based on modelling from health authorities, the winter wave was expected to peak in August and would likely be over by September. He said the impact was likely to be similar to that of the earlier wave last summer.
“It’s pretty close to being the same at the moment, of where we were in January … but the difference is this is a very infectious strain,” he said.
Mr Albanese praised people for being “incredibly responsible during this pandemic”.
“People have done it tough,” he said.
“People have looked after each other and I’m confident that they’ll continue to do so.”
Earlier, chief medical officer Paul Kelly said strong community action was needed to halt the spread of the virus. But he said mandates were “contentious”.
“It’s a pretty strong recommendation,” he told the ABC on Wednesday.
“I have recommended that we need to increase mask use … we have left it there for others to consider the pros and cons of how to do that.”
Professor Kelly refused to be drawn on forecast case numbers for the end of winter.
“We don’t always get it right but the trends are there … all I can say is for the next month all of the forecasts are that we will continue to see more cases unless we all work together to slow that spread,” he said.
In the past week, there have been more than 300,000 COVID cases in Australia – although Professor Kelly and Health Minister Mark Butler believe the real figure could be double that.
With more than 5000 Australians hospitalised with COVID-19 across the country and healthcare staff grappling with increasing flu patients, Mr Butler said the latest virus wave was proving significant.
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But while more than half a million Australians have had a fourth vaccine dose since eligibility was expanded last week, rates for third boosters are lagging.
“The third dose rate just isn’t shifting fast enough,” Mr Butler said on Tuesday.
“There are still more than five million Australians for whom there’s at least six months since they had their second dose of COVID-19 vaccine but have not yet had a third dose.”
Professor Kelly said modelling predicted rising infections to continue for weeks.
“We cannot stop this wave of infections but we can slow the spread and protect the vulnerable,” he added.
“We have done this before and we can do it again.”
Australia’s latest 24-hour COVID data
NSW: 15,352 cases, 20 deaths, 2236 in hospital with 63 in ICU
Victoria: 12,984 cases, 28 deaths, 906 in hospital with 45 in ICU
Tasmania:1586 cases, three deaths (including one from April) with 49 in hospital and two in ICU
Queensland: 9650 cases, 15 deaths, 1034 in hospital and 21 in ICU
South Australia: 4774 cases, 22 deaths (from May 3-July 18), 323 in hospital with 11 in ICU
Western Australia: 7901 cases, two deaths, 457 in hospital with 22 in ICU
Northern Territory: 642 cases, 68 in hospital with one in ICU