Victorian government under pressure over outdoor mask mandates as scientific study criticised

Rhiannon TuffieldNCA NewsWire
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Camera IconNot Supplied Credit: NCA NewsWire

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is under pressure to relax mask rules after a Burnet Institute report about the mandating of masks and their effectiveness was criticised.

Victoria made face masks compulsory in Melbourne in July 2020, with rules changing over the past year depending on the severity of outbreaks.

Masks are currently mandated both indoors and outdoors in Victoria, as the state continues to battle its current Delta outbreak, now averaging about 2000 cases a day.

Opposition spokesman for Covid-19 recovery co-ordination Tim Smith on Friday questioned why masks were still needed in certain settings.

“How is it that a mask is still required outside when social distancing is maintained? It’s not supported by evidence,” Mr Smith said.

“I think we need to reflect now, as we’re coming to the end of the lockdown, about really questioning some of the rules that have been applied in Victoria and the rules that continue to be applied that are not being applied particularly in Sydney, and ask yourself why.”

Camera IconMasks are currently mandatory everywhere outside the home in Victoria. NCA NewsWire/Luis Enrique Ascui Credit: Supplied

The government’s restrictions stance has largely been led by the Burnet Institute, which published a study in the medical journal Plos One in July, claiming the mask rule had turned the pandemic around “almost overnight”.

But several scientists this week criticised the paper’s methodology, saying it was flawed and should never have been published in a major journal. first published concerns about the study earlier this week and said the Victorian health department had pointed to it as evidence to support the mask mandate.

“There has been a lot of low-quality research that has come out in the pandemic, but for this to be used as a basis for a policy change is staggering,” medical researcher and PhD candidate Kyle Sheldrick told the publication.

“When I look at this particular piece of research, it is very, very low quality. I was staggered to see this was published by a major journal.”

Camera IconAustralians have been hit with millions of dollars in fines for breaching Covid public health orders. Credit: NCA NewsWire

The Burnet Institute stood by its study after the article was published.

“We accept that not everyone has to agree with our work, and the two scientists quoted in the article, one anonymously, are welcome to their views,” a spokesman said.

“We also note that now, over a year later than when this work was done, there is a huge body of international work supporting the use of face masks, which is presumably why virtually all jurisdictions in Australia and around the world adopt them.”

Australians across the country have been hit with millions of dollars in fines for breaching Covid-19 public health orders since the start of the pandemic, the bulk of which relate to failing to wear a face mask.

In July, NSW Health publicly stated there had not been a single confirmed case of outdoor transmission in the state during the entire pandemic and this week quietly scrapped rules for masks while working out at the gym.

The change was made by Health Minister Brad Hazzard on Thursday night after a series of complaints, with many gym-goers arguing it was difficult to breath.

But Victoria’s health department maintains there have been “dozens” of cases linked to outdoor events including at the MCC Members Reserve and AAMI Park.

Camera IconVictorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the Burnet Institute “has been pretty spot on”. NCA NewsWire / Andrew Henshaw Credit: News Corp Australia

“There has been so many infectious disease experts who simply say that the outdoor mask mandate is more about appearances and indeed control than it is about medical science,” Mr Smith said.

“A lot of the rules in Victoria could never be justified by health advice.”

Premier Daniel Andrews on Friday denied the government had been too cautious with the Burnet modelling.

“We’re dealing with people’s lives, so the notion you have is ‘let’s hope this works’,” he told reporters.

“The Burnet stuff has been pretty spot on. You’ve got to plan for the worst and work as hard as you can to deliver something better than that.”

Originally published as Victorian government under pressure over outdoor mask mandates as scientific study criticised

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