NSW ignored Brett Sutton’s advice on mask wearing. Picture: Darrian Traynor
NSW ignored Brett Sutton’s advice on mask wearing. Picture: Darrian Traynor

Vic-NSW tensions flare after mask warning snubbed

A personal plea by Victorian health officials for New South Wales to introduce mandatory mask wearing was ignored, well ahead of the state's outbreak making its way south.

Tension is increasing between the states over growing concerns that the NSW government has been far too relaxed in the way it has dealt with the outbreak.

After first being frustrated their advice on compulsory mask wearing was ignored weeks ago, it is understood Victorian health authorities are now anxious their NSW counterparts are not introducing measures to isolate secondary contacts within its COVID-19 clusters. The measures were deemed crucial in halting Victoria's second wave last year.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Picture: Bianca De Marchi
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Picture: Bianca De Marchi

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Saturday announced residents of Greater Sydney would be forced to wear masks or be hit with a $200 fine under strict new government rules that require faces to be covered in a range of indoor settings including shopping centres, cinemas and on public transport.

Ms Berejiklian said it was hoped the mask mandate, which also extends to places of worship, hair and beauty salons and gaming areas, would have a positive economic impact and give people the security to visit these venues without fear.

The Sunday Herald Sun reported when NSW's Northern Beaches cluster emerged, Victoria's public health team presented a likely scenario to the Victorian coronavirus cabinet, based on their own experiences at the start of the second wave.

They advised the measures being undertaken by NSW authorities would see case numbers in the Northern Beaches first fluctuate and then decline, potentially providing a false sense of security before cases emerge in Greater Sydney or other areas six to 10 days later.

NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant. Picture: Bianca De Marchi
NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant. Picture: Bianca De Marchi

The Sunday Herald Sun reported Victoria's chief health officer Brett Sutton called his NSW counterpart Kerry Chant more than a fortnight ago to stress the importance of mandatory mask wearing in a plea to learn from Victoria, which was largely ignored.

Prof Sutton is on leave and could not be contacted.

However, senior sources have confirmed growing unease at NSW's reliance on its ability to contact trace known cases, rather than imposing policy settings to limit the virus' ability to spread in the first place, or act as a safety net.

A fundamental change they are urging NSW to make is strengthening restrictions on secondary contacts, requiring them to isolate in addition to confirmed cases and their close contacts. The measure has been highly successful in Victoria and South Australia.

"Going to those secondary close contacts is the way to get ahead of the wave and the fear for Greater Sydney is they can't do that," one source said.

"If they do not change the settings or introduce mandatory mask wearing and introduce a secondary ring of contact tracing, they will try to chase and chase and chase each case, and then they will see greater numbers of mystery cases emerging."

The Victorian government will also call on national cabinet to endorse stricter, compulsory testing of all hotel quarantine staff in other states, amid fears relaxed regimes could spark another outbreak.

In Victoria, hotel quarantine staff are tested daily, and their families encouraged to undergo weekly tests.

Frontline COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria staff are tested at the start of every shift, including a nose-throat swab on the first day of their roster and saliva testing every other day.

More than 26,000 swab tests have been conducted on hotel quarantine staff since Victoria resumed taking international arrivals on December 7.

Health Minister Martin Foley said a nationally consistent approach was important to containment.

"We know that testing is what keeps our community safe from this deadly disease - and that's why we test our COVID accommodation staff every day," he said. "We've completed over 26,000 tests of CQV staff and have supported their family to get tested every week - keeping them and our community safe."


Originally published as Vic-NSW tensions flare after Sutton's mask warning snubbed

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