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Berejiklian commands virus not to spread by not mandating masks or travel bans

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As Sydney's COVID-19 outbreak grows, Berejiklian continues to ignore the lessons from Victoria, leaving mask wearing and travel bans up to community goodwill (Screenshot via YouTube)

The NSW Government will have to answer for not mandating masks and travel to prevent the spread of infection from the current COVID-19 outbreak, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

COVID-19 is presenting a serious and urgent challenge for the NSW Government, with current outbreaks in greater Sydney and the Northern Beaches.

All other states and territories have acted swiftly to prevent spread of the virus, instigating travel bans and border controls.

Despite scientists at home and abroad urging the use of face masks as a tool to prevent or limit the severity of infections, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has to date refused to mandate their use.

According to Professor Raina MacIntyre, Head of the Biosecurity Research Program at the Kirby Institute, UNSW Medicine:

Without a mandate, we can expect 30-50 per cent at most to wear masks compared to 100 per cent with a mandate. Making masks compulsory early in an epidemic will prevent many more infections and deaths than one issued at the peak.

In an excruciating moment during Premier Berejiklian's press conference on Sunday (20 December), NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant was asked why masks are not being mandated. Dr Chant made the extraordinary claim that she knows people are being co-operative because she’s been sent photos of them wearing masks and has also witnessed this herself whilst “driving around”. Therefore, she claims, there is no current need to make them mandatory.

Dr Chant is, inexplicably, basing her public medical advice on anecdotes in the matter of masks. She is disregarding national and international experience and most bizarrely, the science. As Professor MacIntyre explains above, the time to mandate mask use is early in the outbreak, not at its peak. We are fast progressing beyond the early stage of this outbreak. The window of opportunity to use masks as effectively as possible to prevent spread is closing. Yet the NSW Chief Health Officer (CHO) says she is satisfied that mask use is at its optimum because she’s seen people" wearing them while "driving around.”

Nobody should blame other states and territories for closing down to NSW, given this level of official advice.

On ABC Radio National Breakfast on Monday morning, Dr Norman Swan also called for immediate mandatory masking, as well as a hard lockdown of Sydney. According to Dr Swan, we have the next two days to get the outbreak under some control, after which there is a serious risk of contact tracers being overwhelmed in the lead-up to two super spreader events, Christmas and New Year.

Gladys Berejiklian and her team are in what is probably the most favourable situation possible to contain this virus. Not only has she the recent Victorian experience to call on, but she also has the experience of countries around the world to inform her responses to the outbreak in her State. Masks continue to be an essential and fundamental tool in the task of controlling COVID-19 and yet the NSW Premier continues to resist enforcing their use.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said it all in the tweet he posted on Sunday:

Restrictions so far imposed in NSW are in place only until December 23 and the majority of them are requests rather than orders. The Premier, her CHO and her Health Minister, Brad Hazzard, continue to depend on the cooperation of the public to contain the spread of the disease.

Apparently, we now have Mr Hazzard claiming that if masks were mandated, bus drivers would get into fights if they have to police it.

This action by the NSW Government, or rather lack of it, is similar to the anti-lockdown strategy employed by the Swedish Government, which imposed no enforceable restrictions in the belief that their population would voluntarily take precautions to protect themselves and each other, and in the pursuit of herd immunity

The population as a whole did not self-manage restrictions, as no population as a whole will. Three days ago the King of Sweden blasted the country's coronavirus response as infections and hospitalisations continue to grow.

It is likely that Berejiklian will eventually be forced to mandate masks and introduce hard lockdowns. Unfortunately, precious opportunities to contain the virus will be lost unless she acts now, as the Premier must know.

The Liberal-National Party's resistance to mandating masks is consistent with their ideological commitment to the “rights” of the individual, rather than the wellbeing of society. There are those among us, many of them conservatives, who perceive a mandatory mask order to be a threat to their personal freedom and that their personal freedom is of more consequence than the health and safety of communities. There are others who believe the power of the state should not be used to ensure compliance in the matter of masks, though it is used to ensure compliance in a myriad of other public health issues such as seat belts, smoking and drink driving.

At the time of writing, there are no restrictions preventing people in designated hotspots other than the northern beaches from travelling anywhere in NSW, putting regional and coastal communities at risk. Nobody in a hotspot should be allowed to leave it until the situation is brought under control. However, it is undoubtedly too late to prevent the spread of infection in regional and coastal areas. The NSW Government will answer for this.

Here in NSW, we must take matters into our own hands. Wear masks. Isolate if you’re in a hotspot. Our Government is not currently acting in our best interests but rather is driven, as usual, by ideological and economic concerns. The time when they can most usefully act is rapidly running out. Good luck.

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Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and academic. You can follow her on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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