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Why aren’t face masks mandatory in Sydney?


Mid adult Asian woman is using phone on footpath in Sydney, Australia. Bridge in the back.

As the rules for face mask use vary across Australia, some experts are asking why they are not mandatory in our biggest city, Sydney.

As Melbourne and Mitchell shire citizens roll into their second week of compulsory mask-wearing the rest of Australia for now remains mask free. As a result, many are asking why face masks are not being worn in the rest of Australia?

Face masks can help prevent the spread of coronavirus, particularly by people who don't know they have the virus and haven't been tested, and when it isn't feasible to be 1.5 metres away from others.

Currently, the rules around the wearing of face masks are different in Australia depending on where you live, but some experts are questioning the wisdom of these guidelines when it comes to Australia's most populous city Sydney, especially as more COVID-19 hotspots develop. Today Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk declared greater Sydney as a hotspot and has announced Queensland borders will be closed to Sydneysiders from 1am on 1st August.

The current advice is that the NSW Government recommends wearing a mask if it is difficult to stay 1.5 metres away from other people. For example, on public transport or when caring for vulnerable people, but is this enough in the capital city?

We asked Sydney GP Dr Brad McKay about the issue and why masks aren't mandatory in Sydney?

Dr McKay says that if the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to rise in New South Wales, the most effective way to limit transmission will include everyone wearing face coverings. "Australia is one of the few countries in the world where we have only had extremely low levels of coronavirus within the community. We haven't needed to wear masks so far because the likelihood of coming in contact with the virus has been so low – but that's about to change."

In a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald Professor Nick Talley a neuro gastroenterologist, an expert clinician and editor in chief of the Medical Journal of Australia, and Jeremy Howard (a research scientist at the University of San Francisco) write that Australia is the only country in the world with GDP more than US$1 trillion that does not require or recommend masks, or have near-universal mask usage.

The Australian government currently states (with the exception of Melbourne and Mitchell Shire) that wearing a mask can help protect you and those around you if you are in an area with community transmission, and where physical distancing is not possible, like on public transport.

However, in Sydney in the last week, it was possible to visit crowded public hospitals without a mask (temperature checks and questions were asked) yet the Apple store required all visitors to mask up on arrival. As a result, many Sydneysiders are confused about when and where they should wear a face mask, if at all.

With the current (and confusing) advice McKay says people in Sydney in particular should err on the side of caution and wear a mask or face covering when they are out. "It makes sense to wear face coverings when you can't keep physically distant from others. This means on public transport, shopping for groceries, at medical appointments, visiting the pharmacy – basically whenever you're indoors with other people who aren't part of your household."

So should Sydneysiders consider buying or making a mask now? McKay says it's better to be prepared in advance. "Start getting used to wearing a mask now, before you really need it. It's better to practice wearing a mask now and learn from your mistakes, instead of accidentally infecting yourself later."

And for people in the community who are still not taking coronavirus precautions seriously McKay said,

"At this point of time there's no way of knowing how you'll be affected by COVID-19. You could get a runny nose, a stroke, end up in intensive care on a ventilator for three weeks, or you could end up dead. The best game-plan is to avoid contact with the virus until we have a vaccine.

There's no harm in wearing face coverings, but there's potential benefit of decreasing coronavirus transmission by up to 80%.

The only reason we're not all wearing face-coverings is because it's not a social norm in Australia yet. But in case you've forgotten, we're in a global pandemic. This is not a game. This is about survival. Wearing a mask isn't a big ask."

Want more help with masks? Check out our overview of face masks, how to choose the best one, what doctors recommend when using them, the rules that apply in Australia and our regularly-updated guide on where to buy reusable masks.

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