News State Victoria News Indoor masks, work from home as Vic tightens virus rules
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Indoor masks, work from home as Vic tightens virus rules

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Acting Premier James Merlino said Victoria's new measures were a "sensible response" to the growing COVID load. Photo: Getty
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Victoria will mandate masks in all indoor settings for everyone aged eight and over, as it battles a spike in COVID cases.

Face masks will also be required for those moving around at all events with more than 30,000 people, including the Boxing Day Test.

Acting Premier James Merlino said the tighter mask rules – which had been anticipated amid a steady rise in infections – were “common sense”.

“This is a sensible response that will allow businesses to stay open, bars and restaurants to continue to stay open and major events to go ahead,” he said on Thursday.

“Masks are a cheap and effective way to maintain the health of the community and it’s something public health experts have been calling for.”

Victorians will also again be urged to work from home, while hospitality venues will be encouraged to stick to seated service.

Changes take effect from midnight Thursday and last until at least January 12.

“Because Victorians went out and got vaccinated in record numbers, it means that we are not considering going into lockdown,” Mr Merlino said.

“We still need to be smart, we still need to protect ourselves and our loved ones from getting sick and ensure our health care workers are not being overwhelmed.”

Coronavirus cases spiked to a two-month high in Victoria on Thursday, with another 2005 reported. There were also 10 more fatalities, and 398 people in hospital with the virus.

NSW reported a record 5715 new infections on Thursday. There were also pandemic-high case tallies in Queensland (369), Tasmania (26) and the ACT (85).

Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton said evidence was emerging that the Omicron variant was about 20 per cent less virulent than Delta. But surging cases meant the sheer weight of numbers would strain health systems.

Shortly after Victoria’s announcement, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the growth in COVID cases was yet to lead a spike in hospitalisations across Australia. He said there were 112 patients in intensive care with the virus on Wednesday, up just three from a week ago.

“Ventilation a week ago was 54 patients with COVID around Australia. As of yesterday, there were still 54 patients on ventilation with COVID. So, despite the increase in case numbers, there had been zero increase in ventilated numbers,” Mr Hunt said.

“These things can change, there can be a lag, so I don’t want to make false promises on this.

“But [this situation is] very, very heartening.”

Late on Thursday afternoon, NSW also reintroduced a host of virus measures – including mandatory masks in public indoor spaces, density limits and QR check-ins.

Queensland has also tightened its mask rules.

Federal health officials “highly recommended” wearing masks indoors and other places where social distancing is difficult at Wednesday’s national cabinet meeting, but only states and territories have the power to make the mandate.

Professor Sutton said there was generally about 95 compliance with mask-wearing mandates in Victoria, compared to 50 per cent if they were only “highly recommended”.

Mr Merlino also again called for the time frame between second and third COVID vaccine doses to be shortened, as he announced Victoria would spend $31 million to fast-track its booster program.

“The interval needs to be shortened and the interval needs to be shortened immediately. That’s the view of Victoria. That’s the view of NSW. That’s the view of jurisdictions across the country,” he said.

“It is the clear public health advice we are getting.”

Earlier this month, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation brought the timing of booster doses forward to five months (from six). But it has not made any more changes, despite pleas from several states.

Mr Merlino said third doses of a COVID vaccine were essential, particularly as the Omicron variant became more dominant.

“This is not a booster program. As I said a couple of days ago, boosters give a connotation of it being an optional thing that’s nice to have. It is not,” he said.

“The third dose is critical in our fight against this new variant and we’ve got this window of opportunity.”

Health Minister Martin Foley said Victoria would keep its mass vaccination centres open, and would also open more pop-up centres at shopping centres. Victoria will have the capacity to deliver 900,000 COVID shots every week.

Mr Foley said the ramp up of third doses would not affect the planned rollout of vaccines for children aged five-11 from January 10.

“Paediatric vaccine appointments will be fenced and protected to ensure that – whether it is state clinics or GPs or the pharmacies – those 570,000 kids in that age bracket are locked in for their support for their vaccines over January,” he said.