The advice so far has been Australians don’t need to wear face masks in public because the general rate of community transmission is low, but with the unfolding situation in Victoria, is that advice likely to change?
The decision on face masks being mandatory depends on where you live. While greater Melbourne has been placed back into lockdown, most people will still be allowed to leave to buy food, go to work, exercise or provide care. Some countries around the world have made masks a mandatory part of their response to the virus, requiring people to wear them in spaces where social distancing isn’t possible, like public transport.
It’s something the Melbourne Rail, Tram and Bus Union are also pushing for to protect their members.
So, is this something that’s likely to be introduced? The answer is still a little unclear.
What’s the current advice?
Since the start of the pandemic, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) advice on masks had been that they should be worn by healthcare workers, those with COVID-19 symptoms or people caring for those with the virus.
But after growing evidence showed the efficacy of masks at reducing the virus’s spread, that was extended to advise governments they should encourage the use of fabric or non-medical masks for people who are in areas where the virus is widespread and social distancing can’t be maintained.
Closer to home, even with the unfolding situation in Melbourne and the continuing ease of restrictions elsewhere, Australian health advice on masks hasn’t changed.
Federal authorities still recommend that “the routine use of face masks in the community is currently not recommended while the rate of community transmission of COVID-19 is low”. The advice, much like the WHO guidance, also says “some members of the public” may choose to wear a mask if physical distancing cannot be maintained.
It is also very clear that masks are not a substitute for other measures to prevent the spread of the virus, like physical distancing, hand hygiene, and cough etiquette.
But what about community transmission in Victoria?
While the federal advice says there is no need for people in areas of low transmission to wear a mask, it doesn’t specifically address what people should do if community transmission increases, as it has done in Melbourne. In April, then-Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly advised against wearing masks for most groups, but did leave the door open for advice changing in the future.
Mr Kelly did say that he’d support Victorian authorities if they wanted to introduce different measures to try and control the outbreaks.
Whilst it doesn’t currently look like it’ll become mandatory for face masks to be worn in public in Victoria, Professor Kelly did say the state’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, and his officials are looking at developing new guidelines on using masks.
Speaking on Tuesday, Professor Sutton said he supported the federal health advice.
“Which is really that where community transmission isn’t negligible that masks are a reasonable thing to wear where you can’t physically distance,” he said.
“But we are working up some communication materials on that and I will have more to say on that in coming days.”
But this morning, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said he expected further advice from Professor Sutton on masks in the near future.
He said if the medical advice changed, he wouldn’t hesitate to enforce it. “The voluntary use of masks, particularly where you can’t physically distance, is something that we’re looking at very very closely and Brett Sutton, the Chief Health Officer in Victoria, will have more to say about that very soon,” he said.
“If that advice were to come to me, then that would be the position that I took.”
So while the federal advice doesn’t look likely to change on who should wear masks and when there may be an update for Victoria at a more local level in the near future.
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MaskPac ships all masks Australia wide with free freight, and manufacture all of our masks at our Melbourne manufacturing facility.