Federal health authorities have said Australians outside areas other than Victoria will not need to follow the mandatory face mask rule – yet.
The federal government has thrown its support behind Sunday’s announcement that the wearing of face masks will be mandatory in Victoria’s worst-hit coronavirus areas from 11:59pm on Wednesday night.
Anyone in Greater Melbourne or Mitchell Shire caught without a mask or face covering will be fined $200.
But Federal health Minister Greg Hunt said Sunday that residents outside those areas are not forced under the same rules because community transmission is low outside Melbourne.
He noted six states and territories which had minimum community transmission. The seventh, NSW, was undergoing a “herculean tracing task”.
“At this stage the medical expert panel hasn’t identified a level such as that in other states and territories,” Mr Hunt said.
“But of course it remains open to individuals in any circumstances or workplaces in any circumstances.”
NSW Health still called on residents to “consider using masks in situations where you are unable to social distance” over the weekend.
Advice on the Australian Health Department’s website states: “Wearing a mask can help protect you and those around you if you are in an area with community transmission, and physical distancing is not possible, like on public transport. This is the situation in parts of Victoria.
“The advice about wearing masks in the community has been the same since the pandemic began: it is not generally recommended.”
Earlier this month Mr Hunt said that the wearing of masks could be strongly encouraged or even made mandatory in places where there are coronavirus outbreaks.
“If there is a community outbreak then state and territory authorities are in a position to make decisions on whether this should be encouraged or mandatory,” Mr Hunt said.
On Sunday, Mr Hunt said Victoria is at the point where masks are now “necessary” in the state and said federal officials “fully and completely support”.
“It is necessary, and we are sorry that it has reached this point for all those who were affected. But this is about saving lives and protecting lives.”
“We are sorry that it has reached this point for all those who were affected. But this is about saving lives and protecting lives.”
Australia’s chief medical officers recommended that masks are worn on public transport and when Victorians leave the home for the first time earlier this month.
“Surgical masks or cloth masks are recommended if you find yourself in a situation where you cannot socially distance,’’ Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said.
“This means if you have to leave your home for any of those reasons for which it is permissible, and you are likely to find yourself in a situation where you cannot follow the advice on social distancing.”
Mr Andrews said an order of at least 2.5 million masks was on its way to Melbourne, with the “first significant batch” expected to arrive this week.
He told reporters “common sense” will guide when people need to don a mask, adding the decision had been made on the advice of Victoria’s chief health officer.
“If you are out of your home for one of the four permitted reasons, then you need to be wearing a mask and I stress – or a face covering,” the Premier announced Sunday.
Professor Sutton said everyone over the age of 12 is recommended to wear a mask.
“That is in recognition that it’s likely to work for all of those age groups. Below the age of 12, it’s a consideration. We say not for toddlers. So not for two years and below,” he said.
“It’s a consideration for all other children. But it is mandatory, really, from that high school age onwards.”
Exemptions will be given to people who cannot wear a mask due to a medical condition, and when engaged in an activity where it is “entirely impractical” to wear a mask, it’s also not a requirement, Prof Sutton said.
“But it does make a difference. And having universal mask wearing is the key here, because not only are you – if you’re potentially infected – shedding less virus into the atmosphere, but the person around you, if they’re 1.5 metres away or closer, or further away, will be less exposed,” he said.
“And if there’s virus out there in the atmosphere, there’s some filtering that happens with those cloth masks and as we say, it doesn’t have to be a mask. It’s a cloth face covering. It does need to cover the nose and mouth, and as some of you might have seen, masks don’t do very well in your pocket. They don’t do very well when sitting on your chin. They do need to cover your mouth to work properly, so that really needs to be reinforced.”
Prof Sutton said that while “obviously, if you’re drinking or eating, you’re not going to wear the mask”, for the rest of the time, Victorians should.
“These won’t always be really easy and they won’t always be welcome, but they are important, and there are lessons, increasingly internationally, about the jurisdictions that are doing well have introduced mandatory mask wearing,” he explained.
“And those that haven’t are the ones that are seeing really catastrophic numbers at the moment.”
People wearing a mask should avoid touching it “as much as you can avoid it”, and to wash their hands before and after putting on their mask with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitiser.