The Victorian government has knocked back official COVID-19 health advice for mask mandates to return in schools, early childhood centres, retail stores and hospitality venues.
Acting Chief Health Officer Ben Cowie advised Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas to reinstate the mandates but she instead opted to strongly recommend Victorians wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces.
Ms Thomas said she was given assurances from business and community leaders they would actively encourage mass mask use among workers.
“I made a decision based on the advice that I had received that further mandating masks was not the most effective way to get the message out about the importance of mask wearing,” she told reporters on Tuesday.
Under new measures from 11.59pm on Tuesday, people who test positive to the virus will be exempt from testing – and isolating for four weeks instead of 12 – in line with Australian Health Protection Principal Committee advice.
Employers have been asked to consider work-from-home arrangements for staff, although no recommendation has been issued.
A government advertising blitz will also be launched to promote vaccine boosters, and more grants made available to small businesses to buy air purifiers.
Ms Thomas branded the changes sensible and balanced in the face of rising cases and hospitalisations driven by surging Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants.
Victoria recorded 10,627 new cases and a further 16 deaths on Tuesday after hospitalisation rates jumped by 53 per cent in the past fortnight.
There are 737 people in Victorian hospitals, well shy of the 1229 peak recorded in mid-January during the original Omicron wave.
Modelling on forecast cases, hospitalisations and deaths in coming weeks and months was part of the official public health advice and informed Ms Thomas’ decision-making, but she declined to provide detail.
“Any figures that I gave you would be speculation because those figures depend on the actions that Victorians take right now,” she said.
The Victorian government has released modelling for past waves and Premier Daniel Andrews previously said it always followed health advice.
But mask mandates and other restrictions were not having the same impact they once did and more localised messaging was needed, Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett said.
“We need this to not be a one-size-fits-all message from a podium,” Professor Bennett told AAP.
The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry believes it is sensible for the measures to be recommendations rather than mandates, saying it enables people to make their own decisions.
But AMA Victoria president Roderick McRae said Victoria was headed for another “perfect storm”, cheered on by the business community whose interests the government prioritised over health.
“They’re just in too big a rush to pretend this is all finished, which it is not, and ignoring the fact that we’re in the middle of winter,” he told AAP.
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy was glad the government stopped short of reintroducing mask mandates, but criticised the timing of the vaccine booster initiative.
“I don’t understand why we are halfway through winter and they’ve decided to run an education campaign,” he said.
The official advice that formed the basis of the COVID-19 health orders will be tabled in state parliament within the next seven days, as required under the state’s pandemic laws.