At one level, it feels pedantic, three days before Christmas, to be debating the difference between a formal mask mandate and a strong recommendation to wear a mask.
But this distinction is important when public health risks are real, and governments of Australia have spent much of this pandemic congratulating themselves for listening to experts and following the health advice.
If you’ve missed the mask fracas, let’s summarise it quickly.
New South Wales is experiencing a surge of new infections as people head off for their summer break, but the premier, Dominic Perrottet clearly does not want to impose a general mask mandate.
Scott Morrison has been backing in the NSW premier, trialing a new mantra. The prime minister says people need to take personal responsibility for managing their own risks rather than wait passively for instructions.
In the context of moving from pandemic to endemic, Morrison’s point is valid enough. People do need to exercise more personal responsibility as we make this transition.
But the current health advice is just that: current. It reflects current risk assessments. It reflects what is known right now about the threat posed by the Omicron variant and what remains unknown.
Are we there yet isn’t the test. The advice reflects on-balance judgments by experts about present risk. When the risks are life and death, the nuances have meaning. They matter.
So let’s be clear because the health advice is very clear.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has recommended that face masks be worn in indoor settings “particularly in high-risk settings”.
The advice also says “masks should be mandated in all indoor settings” including retail, hospitality and entertainment.
The experts say implementation of mask-wearing measures “should occur prior to Omicron case escalation to have maximum benefit” – which is a polite way of saying do it. Now.
Do not mess around. Get the masks on your people. This is not a drill.
Given compulsion is a way of being clear with people – a way of telling people preventive behaviour has value – some jurisdictions have already imposed mandates in line with the AHPPC guidance.
But despite possessing that very clear advice, Morrison walked out of a meeting of the national cabinet on Wednesday afternoon and declined to use the word mandate in relation to mask wearing.
Now the prime minister did strongly encourage people to wear masks in indoor settings. At the end of his remarks, he also demonstrated putting on his mask before he retreated indoors (see what he did there) to his office.
But the prime minister vaulted right over the “M” word. “Ms” were for someone else. Some other nanny state-ist busybody. Not him.
Morrison told reporters any “public health social measures” (regulations or directions in other words) were “always determined by states and territories … not by the commonwealth government”.
Technically this is true. The states do issue the directions (although the commonwealth has invoked its own seeping biosecurity powers to manage this crisis).
But Morrison’s new script is not only selective – it erases the custom and practice of the very recent past. The prime minister has never been shy of telling the premiers and chief ministers what he thinks they should be doing in the interests of their constituents.
Morrison also, famously, pushed mandatory vaccinations for workers in the aged care sector – and not in another lifetime. That campaign was only six months ago. In that particular example, the prime minister’s enthusiasm for mandatory vaccinations was so profound he front-ran the health advice. The health advice eventually caught up.
Given the AHPPC had advised mandatory mask wearing, and the prime minister wasn’t echoing that recommendation, Morrison and the chief medical officer Prof Paul Kelly were asked on Wednesday afternoon whether or not the health advice had changed?
Kelly said: “The health advice is wear a mask.” So, no, in other words. The health advice had not changed.
What’s changed is the politics.
Perrottet doesn’t want to impose a mask mandate unless he absolutely has to – and Morrison needs, somehow, to balance the present public health risks with his re-election messaging.
Two years into this pandemic, Australians are fatigued. Everyone wants this crisis to be over. People are craving a normal Christmas. Understanding this, Morrison has been warming up for a re-election pitch in the opening months of 2022 which is about getting government out of people’s lives.
Pandemic Scott wants to shapeshift into Post Pandemic Personal Responsibility Scott because that’s where he thinks the zeitgeist is – at least the zeitgeist of the people who will determine the outcome of next year’s election. You don’t have to be Einstein to work out Morrison advocating an enforceable mask mandate three days before Christmas doesn’t align with that objective.
But in trying to avoid one problem, Morrison is creating another.
Morrison is lecturing Australians about taking personal responsibility, while opting out of one of the clear responsibilities of the prime ministerial office – backing in his health advisers at a critical moment with one clear message.
Perhaps Morrison will luck out. Perhaps the Omicron variant will be mild enough to facilitate the desired prime ministerial shapeshift. Or perhaps it won’t.
It’s one hell of a gauntlet to run. In the coming weeks, we’ll see how it pans out.
In the meantime, if you just need simple information about what to do to keep yourself and others safe over the next few days as you race about preparing Christmas (and most of us appreciate facts) – be in no doubt what the expert heath advice is.
If you are indoors, in a crowd, wear your mask.