Masks could become mandatory across Australia again as a looming Covid and flu crisis threatens to bring the nation to a standstill.
Nearly 250,000 Aussies have tested positive for Covid in the past week, with states including New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia, recording more than 8,000 cases in the past 24 hours.
Over the past week, NSW recorded the most infections with 61,000, while more than 50,000 people tested positive for the virus in Victoria.
And those figures are expected to get worse in the coming weeks as the winter chill grips the nation and new, highly infectious Omicron strain BA.5 becomes dominant.
Australia is also now facing a double whammy with rising cases of the flu making this winter the worst influenza outbreak in years, causing chaos in the workforce.
Now Queensland is tipped to be the first to bring back mask mandates in a bid to stem the tidal wave of infection.
Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Dr John Gerrard revealed there had been ongoing talks with his interstate colleagues about mask mandates returning.
‘I can say that nationally, there is increasing pressure,’ he told 4BC’s Peter Fegan.
‘There is a school of thought that we should be mandating masks again.’
Nearly 250,000 Australians have tested positive for Covid in the past week, with states including NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia, recording more than 8,000 cases in the past 24 hours (pictured, members of the public walking in Brisbane wearing masks)
Hundreds of thousands of workers are likely to be forced to stay home during the next month, adding to the crippling staff shortages smashing many businesses nationwide.
Influenza case data from the Health Department showed that the weekly figures have already gone past the five-year average and hit more than 147,000 this season.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk had celebrated the lifting of almost all mask rules earlier this year with an awkward slow-motion video on social media showing her ripping off her mask.
But it now looks like the celebrations may have been premature and short-lived – and may affect other states too.
Queensland is considering bring back the hated masks mandates in a major U-turn in a bid to stem the worst effects of Covid (pictured, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk removing her mask)
The mask mandate was lifted for airports last month, but passengers are still required to wear them when on the plane.
Across the Sunshine State, masks are still required in healthcare settings, aged care, disability accommodation, prisons, detention centres, on public transport and in rideshares or taxis.
Queensland recorded a 12 per cent rise in Covid-19 deaths over the past month, with 199 fatalities in June compared to 177 in May.
Dr Gerrard said the current strains of the virus have been evading both vaccine and natural immunity, but stressed vaccination was still the best protection, with fourth boosters vital for those over 65.
Those under 65 should have their three doses of a Covid vaccine, he added.
‘We are seeing the establishment of a new wave of covid, these BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants that are causing a significant wave at the moment,’ Dr Gerrard said.
‘Infection with this virus will be very common, you will know a lot of people infected with this strain of the virus in the coming weeks.
There are currently about 600 people hospitalised with Covid across Queensland
‘The majority of people that are being admitted to hospital in Queensland are people over the age of 65 who are not up to date with their vaccinations.
‘That has actually shocked me, that most (of those) people are not up to date with their vaccinations.’
Hospitalisations are set to spike significantly, he warned, with numbers expected to soar from the current 600 people being treated in the state’s hospitals.
He added: ‘The vaccines do protect us, particularly if you’re up to date with boosters; they protect us against severe disease, that’s the most critical thing.’
Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Dr John Gerrard revealed there had been ongoing talks with his interstate colleagues about mask mandates returning
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Andrew McKellar said the current spate of Covid and flu-related absences, combined with existing national staff shortages, is ultimately causing a massive blow to productivity.
‘Some businesses that are already in a fragile position due to labour shortages will have no choice but to close their doors temporarily when illness hits,’ Mr McKellar said.
‘Staff shortages haven’t been more acute in living memory.
‘Small businesses suffered the shock of enforced shutdowns during the height of the pandemic…Now, they are the most vulnerable to staff absences if illness enters the workplace.’
Infectious diseases expert Dr Paul Griffin warned that widespread complacency with see the compulsory return of masks.
‘I’d like to think they won’t be required, but if they are then it might be something that comes back more broadly and then is reduced as we get a hold of things again,’ he said.
‘But again, I hope that’s not something that has to happen.’