Scott Morrison insists it’s not necessary for the states to introduce mask mandates in response to a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases, despite health advice recommending they be compulsory in indoor settings.
Speaking after a national cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the prime minister instead said it was “highly recommended” to wear masks indoors, urging Australians to use common sense and to reduce their risk of spreading Covid to their loved ones over Christmas.
Health advice circulated to state and territory leaders late last week made the case for mandating masks in all indoor settings, including retail, entertainment facilities, and hospitality when not eating and drinking.
“Implementation of mask wearing measures should occur prior to Omicron case escalation to have maximum benefit,” said the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) advice.
But after the unscheduled meeting with states and territory leaders Morrison called for a “greater level of self-regulation” as he brushed off the idea of explicitly calling on the states and territories to mandate masks.
The premiers would make their own decisions about how best to promote mask usage, Morrison said, adding that some leaders “like to use mandates” and others “rely on the individual responsibility to achieve that”.
The emphasis on personal responsibility echoes the language used by the New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, who has defended the decision to recently relax mask mandates. NSW reported a record high 3,763 new Covid cases on Wednesday, and Victoria 1,503.
“What matters is that people wear them, not whether people get fined,” Morrison said.
Morrison urged Australians to “think of the person sitting on the other side of the table” and to wear a mask in indoor settings.
“Think of the person you’re going to meet this weekend. Think of Christmas Day where you’ll see elderly relatives, and wear a mask. It’s pretty simple. And so I would encourage you to do exactly that, as the medical advice has highlighted.”
Standing alongside Morrison at the media conference, the chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said he wanted to be “very clear” that masks worked to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
“They do protect yourself, they do protect others,” Kelly told reporters.
When pressed on the specific health advice he had provided, Kelly said: “The health advice is wear a mask.”
In his post-national cabinet press conference, Morrison urged states and territories to stop requiring negative PCR tests for interstate travel, blaming it for unnecessarily extending Covid-19 testing queues and wait times.
He also said the national cabinet would meet again in two weeks. He said they would all work on a common definition of casual contacts, and isolation and testing requirements, to try to end “different rules in different places”.
There was no change to the interval for booster shots, which has already been reduced from six months to five months, despite calls from some premiers to further shorten the gap.
Morrison said he would rely on the advice of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) on that issue. “That will be determined by the immunisation experts and no one else.”
He said the focus of the booster program was vulnerable Australians, but he said also flagged further advice on “prioritisation”, including younger age groups.
“We know that the Omicron variant moves very quickly amongst young people, and so we’ll be taking more advice on those issues.”
The prime minister said the federal government would increase payments to GPs and pharmacists by $10 a jab, to provide an added incentive to continue the vaccination rollout over the summer period. He called on state and territories to reinstate vaccination hubs that were closed in recent months.
The national vaccination coordinator, Lt Gen John Frewen, said Australia was on track to start the vaccination of five- to 11-year-old children from 10 January as planned.
Morrison said Australians had “worked very hard” this year and were looking forward to Christmas. “My main message is to stay calm, get your booster, follow the common sense behavioural measures,” he said.
“One of the things we agreed today is we’re not going back to lockdowns, we do not want to go back to lockdowns.”