Governments adopted the wrong strategy dealing with the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant and more people need to wear masks, the head of a high-profile Australian medical institute says.
Burnet Institute director Brendan Crabb says the country is facing a messaging problem and governments should admit they dropped the ball – and consider reintroducing mask mandates to curb high COVID case numbers.
“Australians love a mandate – a seatbelt or a helmet or a speed limit or a drink-driving rule or smokers outside. We love a mandate, but only when we’ve bought in to the reason for the mandate,” Prof Crabb told the Medical Journal of Australia’s InSight+ podcast on Monday.
“And with COVID we have not bought into that – that’s why that mindset shift is so important.
“Until the prime minister and the premiers and chief ministers get up … I don’t think we will change the minds of Australians.”
Prof Crabb said the Burnet Institute has done yet-to-be released modelling that shows mask mandates “could still save 14 per cent or so of the deaths, maybe 20 per cent of the cases by October”.
Governments have been reluctant to reintroduce mandates, although various leaders have encouraged wearing masks in certain settings.
Fear of a public backlash to mandates returning, which Prof Crabb acknowledges is probably what would happen, is likely responsible.
He suggested mandates be used rarely, but requiring masks in some circumstances could encourage more people to wear them outside of those areas too.
“What we’re worried about now with mask mandates is that the community will revolt – and that’s probably true,” he said.
“The reason for that is that we’ve not won them over. The community doesn’t know what value there is in it.
“We know that mandating does work. There’s good evidence to say that it makes a big difference. It’s not a trigger you’d want to pull that often, and it’s certainly not something that needs to be in every circumstance.
“This particular modelling said, if masks were mandated in schools, and then there was a sliding window of increase in use in the wider community, then these (reductions in deaths and cases) would be the effects.”
Australia recorded 19,873 new coronavirus cases and 14 deaths on Monday.