The sudden embrace of face masks to stop COVID-19 has been slammed as coming ‘too slowly’ after the science finally firmed up in favour of using them.
Official health advice wearing masks in Australia has changed radically over recent months from ‘don’t bother’ to not wearing one carrying a $200 fine in Victoria.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has announced mask wearing is now ‘strongly recommended’ in places where it’s impossible to socially distance.
This includes supermarkets, public transport and places of worship – the policy coming as virus-riddled Victoria made mask-wearing compulsory statewide.
Widespread mask adoption comes as Melbourne plunges into Stage Four lockdown while a jittery NSW reported seven ‘mystery cases’ in the past week.
But why did it take so long for Australians to be told to pop down to the chemist and pick up face masks in the first place?
It seems extraordinary that months ago, at the start of the pandemic, the country’s leading panel of top doctors, the Australian Healthcare Protection Principal Committee, actively discouraged Australians from wearing masks out into the community.
In late February, before the first wave took off in earnest, Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy even urged people in Melbourne not to ‘waste’ surgical masks by wearing them, as there was little to no community transmission at the time.
And on April 17, the powerful committee issued a statement saying it didn’t recommend people wearing cloth or ‘non medical’ masks.
‘The use of these masks has the potential to create more harm than good,’ the advice warned.
Health officials continued to reject mask use for weeks to come.
Dr Murphy only changed his tune on masks about the end of May, suggesting they should be worn on public transport – with state premiers and even the Prime Minister now leading by example at the beginning of August.
Scientists and government officials said the massive change is because Australia’s situation, and our understanding of face masks and COVID-19 have changed dramatically.
But a top disease doctor said we’ve moved too slowly.
Australian officials had three major concerns about masks earlier this year according to University of Melbourne health expert Professor Tony Blakely.
The first was that, back during the first wave, medical evidence for masks slowing the spread of coronavirus was initially ‘uncertain’.
Professor Blakely said: ‘The evidence of masks wasn’t as good as it is now, when we started this pandemic.’
The second major worry was that there were fears masks wouldn’t be worn correctly by the community, concerns that the epidemiologist described as ‘legitimate’.
But in the time since the pandemic began, Prof. Blakely said high-quality research has found masks can significantly cut transmission of the virus.
However, the expert said Australia was at least three weeks too slow in embracing the findings of new research which was published at the end of May.
‘There was intransigence and slowness to changing that (policy) on the evidence,’ he said.
‘Once you’ve said something, it’s hard to back out of it’.
The other major factor stopping widespread face covering recommendations were fears Australia didn’t have a large enough supply of masks.
‘We didn’t have stockpiles of face masks and they were being protected,’ Prof Blakely said.
But that has now changed.
In announcing her new policy on Sunday, Ms Berejiklian said local companies are now manufacturing face masks and supply chains have been established.
‘To date, supplies have been reasonable throughout the state,’ she said. ‘I am confident that whoever at this stage wants to get a mask can do so.’
Ms Berejiklian’s decision also comes after pressure from the state Opposition – which argues masks should be mandatory on public transport.
Labor leader Jodi McKay has claimed credit for pushing the Premier toward masks in recent days.
‘It’s good the Premier is finally inching closer, led by Labor, businesses and the community, but her position is still confusing,’ she tweeted.
On Saturday, supermarket Woolworths and hardware giant Bunnings on Saturday urged customers to wear masks when attending their stores beginning today.
Ms Berejiklian has maintained she is simply sharing the health advice of NSW officials, and claims the state can’t be compared with others.
New South Wales has been on ‘high alert’ for a second wave for weeks.
The change in approach to face masks has come from the very top.
At the weekend, Prime Minister Scott Morrison shared a selfie of himself wearing a surgical mask on Instagram.
Last week, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd penned an opinion piece urging Australians to consider wearing masks – in a giant leap from what his colleagues were saying months ago.
‘Wearing masks is an important additional measure to help combat COVID-19,’ Dr Kidd said.
‘A mask can help to prevent the person wearing it from contracting COVID-19, and stop someone else from becoming infected.