Key points

  • Doctors have been warning of unsafe conditions in Victoria’s hospitals as they grapple with high demand and staff shortages.
  • The Australian Medical Association in Victoria says the public needs to play its part by wearing a mask, even in some situations when the rules don’t require it, and avoiding mass gatherings.
  • The Victorian Government says COVID-19 rules are constantly under review.

The Australian Medical Association says Victorians should voluntarily don masks at the supermarket, indoor theatres and anywhere else where there is a high chance of spreading winter viruses.

Conditions in the state’s hospitals have been deteriorating worryingly in recent weeks. Wards are full and ambulance ramping is widespread. Doctors have declared emergency departments to be dangerous, and epidemiologists expect the pressure on the health system to worsen as the temperature drops, with a further surge in COVID-19 cases and a growing flu season.

Mandates are unlikely, but more people should wear masks more often, doctors say.Credit:Chris Hopkins

The president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Roderick McRae, said the doctors group would be supportive of a move to reinstate some “moderate, but sensible [COVID-19] requirements” such as masks in supermarkets, theatres, concert halls and football stadiums.

But with such a decision politically fraught and not expected in the short-term, McRae instead called on people to take their own precautions for the good of the community, including avoiding mass events and getting a third vaccine.

More than 33 per cent OF Victorians aged 16 or older have still to receive their booster dose.

McRae said while he understood that people wanted to get back to normal “the community needs to decide what’s most important – not prejudicing the public hospital system or going to five football matches over five days a week”.

The president of the Victorian branch of the AMA, Dr Roderick McRae, says Victorians need to do their part in responding to the hospital crisis.Credit:Jor Armao

“Today the public hospital system is in crisis. We’ve heard of nothing but ambulance ramping from summer. It’s only set to get worse.”

Mask mandates for hospitality and retail workers were scrapped in Victoria last month, meaning face coverings are no longer required for most indoor spaces, except for public transport, airports, hospitals, aged care facilities and a few other scenarios deemed higher risk.

In place of widespread mandates, the Victorian government still “strongly recommends” the public wear a face mask in places they cannot physically distance, for those with any COVID-19 symptoms or when mingling with people vulnerable to COVID-19.

Respected pandemic adviser Professor James McCaw anticipates Australia could be facing a difficult period over winter with new Omicron sub-variants and an uncertain flu season, and that’s even without any bad new variant emerging.

“The pandemic is still here. It hasn’t gone anywhere,” said the epidemiologist and mathematical biologist with the University of Melbourne.

McCaw said while Australian governments had now moved away from requiring as much from the public, people should still make choices to reduce the spread of virus and thereby save lives.

For example, he encouraged people to isolate at home if someone in their house had COVID-19 if they could (this requirement was also dropped in Victoria) and said support should be available for people to follow COVID-19 recommendations.

“We’ve moved away from requiring certain things but all of the statements from the AHPPC [Australian Health Protection Principal Committee] and Victorian Health Department, they say everything that used to be required is still recommended,” he said.

“And people seem to read it as ‘you don’t need to do it, so don’t do it’. That’s not what was said.”

When asked about the merit of a return to more widespread mandates he hesitated, saying while people should be wearing masks in supermarkets, for example, it was a bit of a distraction from the most important issue.

“The first thing people can do is get vaccinated. Third dose vaccination rates are still low – they make a huge, huge difference – and those eligible for four doses should get four doses.”

In Australia, a fourth vaccination dose is recommended for severely immunocompromised people aged over 16, Australians aged over 65, Indigenous Australians aged 50 and over, and residents of aged care or disability care facilities.

A Victorian government spokesperson said COVID-19 settings were always under review based on current evidence, including the epidemiological situation.

“As part of any consideration of changes to settings, the minister must consider the advice of the CHO [chief health officer] and may consider other stakeholders.”

The AMA’s national president Dr Omar Khorshid said COVID-19 continued to have a serious impact on Australia’s hospitals – in hundreds of extra patients [526 were admitted with the virus in Victoria as of Monday] and increasingly burnout and depleted staff.

He said it had always been the group’s position that COVID-19 restrictions should remain on the table if the circumstances required it, though he noted “you’ve got to make sure the measure… is actually going to work”.

“There’s definitely an argument that masks would assist in protecting hospitals, and is something that should certainly be on the table.”

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