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COVID-19 - Removal of Mandatory Mask-Wearing Public Health Order

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 9 March 2022

Tags: COVID-19, Schools

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Speaker, I move -

That the House -

(1) Notes that on the 4 March, 2022, the Premier Hon. Peter Gutwein MP, announced a phase out of the mandatory mask-wearing public health order.

(2) Acknowledges:

(a) this decision is likely to increase community transmission of COVID-19 and expose vulnerable Tasmanians to higher risk; and

(b) COVID-19 protections, and their removal, are a significant matter of public interest.

(3) Calls on the Gutwein Government to table the unredacted advice provided by Public Health that underpinned the Premier's decision to remove mask protections.

Mr SPEAKER - Is a vote required?

Dr WOODRUFF - Yes. Thank you, Mr Speaker.

We have moved this motion today because of our deep and abiding concern and we are reflecting the views of so many Tasmanians at the complete U-turn in public health policy of this Liberal Government in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After 15 December when the borders opened, Ms O'Connor, the Leader of the Greens and I spent the whole summer in constant communication with many Tasmanians: intelligent, concerned, caring, community-minded people who looked at the evidence, who looked at the protections that were in place, who looked at the impact of the borders opening and who were incredibly outraged, fearful, disbelieving, at the complete about-face of the Premier's COVID 19 strategy. The change from putting Tasmanian's health and safety first throughout the first two years of the pandemic to adopting the federal Liberal Party's, Scott Morrison's, 'let it rip' approach, where COVID-19 has entered our community.

And what has happened? How is it going? Before the borders opened on 15 December we had 240 cases of COVID-19 that had been recorded in two years in Tasmania, and 13 deaths. Today, the latest information is that we have had 53 390 Tasmanians who have been infected with COVID-19. Today's figures were for 1109 most recent daily cases. The day before that was 1051. Across the last week we have had numbers in the high 800s to 900s, and 1000.

We have had schools. We only have information for government schools. The Government has refused to provide data on non-government schools, on private and independent schools. We do not know how many children have been infected. We have no idea what is happening in those schools. We can only go on what we have been able to garner, on the basis of Greens' questioning of the Health minister in parliament, that more than 1700 children have been infected with COVID-19; 1300 or more of them are in government primary schools. Thirteen people have died in the last three months; that is exactly the same number who died in the two years prior to that.

In this context, the Premier last Friday has called 'masks off': do not worry about it everyone, we are living with COVID-19 now, there is nothing to see here, everything is okay. It is mild, let us just go about our business, particularly go about your business and we will go about the business of looking after the interests of people who fund the Liberal party, who we privilege and prioritise in our policy at this most important part of the pandemic.

The Government has rested its whole basis for Public Health response to COVID-19 now on vaccine protection. So how is that going? The Premier keeps saying that we have the highest level of protection in the country. The secretary of the Health Department, Kathrine Morgan-Wicks was on the radio on Monday morning actively misrepresenting the truth. She said, 'Tasmania's very high vaccination rate now sitting at 97 per cent fully vaccinated, or 99 per cent the first dose'. Fully vaccinated is not two doses. ATAGI made that clear in recent statement on 10 February. ATAGI was clear that you need to have a booster dose to maintain an up-to-date status for COVID-19 vaccination. There has to be the third dose, or a booster, because waning efficacy is apparent now following a COVID-19 vaccination of only two doses for the Omicron variant. Two doses is not a full vaccination according to ATAGI.

Ms Morgan-Wicks was on radio on Monday morning misrepresenting what the Premier stands in here day after day telling Tasmanians, that we have the highest rate of vaccine protection in the country. We do not. The reality is 40 per cent of Tasmanians over the age of 16 have not had a booster dose. All of our children under 12 have not been vaccinated at all. Only 62 per cent have had a first dose; 62 per cent of our vulnerable children who have their whole lives to live, the people we should most care about, six out of 10 have only had one dose. It is flat-lining at 62 per cent. There has been no campaigns rolled out from this Government to encourage, require, incentivise parents to get their children vaccinated.

The Premier has to stop talking about two doses. We have a pathetic vaccination rate. A pathetic protection from vaccines. How good are vaccine protections? According to OzSAGE, the fantastic group of Australian virologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, vaccinoligists, occupational health people, lawyers, people in public health medicine, people in public policy, those independent people not paid a wage to provide independent, high-quality expert advice throughout this pandemic, three doses of a vaccine are very effective at preventing people from being hospitalised and very effective at reducing risk of long-COVID 19.

However, it is only as good as the vaccine you have had. For the people who have not had a full up-to-date level of vaccination that is no good. Vaccines wane and the effectiveness of vaccines is reducing. The latest information from OzSAGE experts is that waning protection against hospitalisation also occurs after a third dose. Vaccines do not provide durable protection. They expect to see the effect of the current vaccine protection in Australia waning by about April. We are in March. Next month we can start to see a drop-off. For the 60 per cent of adults who have had their booster dose in Tasmania we can start to see that losing its effectiveness in the next couple of months. That would be just before winter. Just before the high-risk that we have seen in other countries of COVID-19 building up during the winter period. It is not durable. It is part of the answer, it is not the solution.

Why should we care about protecting ourselves from long COVID-19? We are only just commencing the research on long COVID-19, but what we have been able to find out in two years is frightening. Long COVID-19 can be caused by an infection or it can be caused months later or in years later. It can occur even if people have had no symptoms of long COVID-19. It is not just related to people who have been hospitalised or on a ventilator. It can be people who have not been in hospital or not even had symptoms. Large studies in the United States have showed that virus persists in the brain, the heart, the lungs and other organs. There is strong research that shows 37 per cent of people will get some sort of long COVID-19 symptoms. That is the research OzSAGE experts have pulled together and comes from the journal Cell.

It can cause very severe long term complications to the heart. A US study showed twice the risk of heart attacks, of stroke, of heart failure, of heart infections and blood clots a year after COVID-19, regardless of whether a person had been hospitalised. A recent Victorian study of 20 500 long COVID-19 cases found similar types of heart damage, but their study showed much higher risks attached to whether a person had had long COVID-19. We know that COVID 19 persists in the brain and that may lead to changes that look like, under scans, the sort of damage that Alzheimer's does to the brain. There is mounting evidence of neurological and psychiatric effects. A third of people are estimated to have some sort of neurological effects. There is strong evidence of this persisting for people six months afterwards.

Another study showed loss of function and mobility nine months after people had had long COVID-19, regardless of how severe they had had the infection. The largest body of observable symptoms from long COVID-19 is a range of difficult-to-pin-down, hard-to-describe ongoing health problems for people that they have never experienced before. These are real, they are definable and they cause significant patient suffering. Sometimes they resolve after two to three months. In many people we are seeing this continue on.

Mr Speaker, 37 per cent of people will have some sort of long COVID-19 symptoms. Some of them will be deadly, some of them will be disabling, some of them will be severe and permanent, and some of them will resolve. In Tasmania today, because of the Premier's decision to open the borders without people being properly vaccinated, we have 19 240 so far who, on the evidence, would be at risk of developing some sort of long COVID-19 into the future, if they are not experiencing it now. That is a huge addition to our burden of disease in Tasmania. An enormous addition to chronic disease in a state that can least afford to have any extra people with chronic disease. We already have the highest rates of chronic disease in most categories in Australia. We have an older population, we have a sicker population and we have a very badly equipped health care system to be able to manage it.

Why would the Premier take away masks in this situation? Why do we need them? The Premier was very keen to seek Professor Raina MacIntyre's advice beforehand. He actually chose to take independent expert advice above the director of Public Health, with all due respect to the Director of Public Health - no comment about him. Appropriately, the Premier did seek advice from interstate from experts about the modelling and reopening the borders. Professor McIntyre was in charge of that work.

What she says about removing masks at this point in the epidemic is very concerning. She published this just a couple of weeks ago, and she made it really clear: masks reduce our risk of getting COVID-19. A properly fitted mask reduces the risk of getting COVID-19 because it is an airborne virus by 83 per cent, compared to 66 per cent for surgical masks and 56 per cent for cloth masks. You also need to wear a mask because you might not know if you have COVID-19. You can show no symptoms at all. If you get COVID-19, you will have a period of time before you get symptoms, if you do, when you not showing any symptoms. You do not feel sick, so people do not know when they are exhaling next to somebody else on the bus, or sitting in a restaurant, or standing next to them at the markets.

Wearing masks protects other people from the high risk of COVID-19 and from long COVID-19. It protects people who have much greater risks for severe COVID-19, people with disabilities, people with chronic illnesses, people with immune compromised systems, people who are on cancer treatment, who have organ transplants. These are all people living in our community. We do not know who they are. They know who they are and they are afraid. They are not going to restaurants and bars and clubs. They are not comfortable sitting on public transport; they are staying at home.

This proposal to remove all universal mask wearing will mean that they stay at home for much longer. It is absolutely entirely unnecessary. It is something that we can all do and it has almost no effect on anybody. Some research was done in New South Wales recently and the majority of people want to wear masks; 85 per cent of people feel more comfortable when everyone wears a mask. A total 83 per cent of people in the study of New South Wales supported masks being worn inside shops and public venues. The pandemic is not over. New variants will emerge; we do not know when. We must have a multi-pronged approach that includes vaccines and getting our boosters, but also recognising it is not durable protection; we need to have masks. It is a baseline, single, simple form of protection and it is a no-brainer.

So, who wants to get rid of masks? Let us have a look at who is been talking in the last couple of days? We had Senator Eric Abetz complaining about the fact that it is uncomfortable and a nuisance. Bad luck, senator. It is hard for you to have a little lack of comfort; meanwhile other people's lives are saved, thanks to you getting out of your comfort zone. We can all get out of our comfort zone when it comes to supporting somebody else.

What about a person with disability? What about when you are speaking to a parent about their child? Ms O'Connor and I have spoken to so many parents who have contacted us and said thank you for listening, thank you for hearing us, thank you for understanding our concern. 'We love our children; we are very concerned about them. We are deeply concerned about our older mother. We are really concerned because we are in breast cancer treatment at the moment. We cannot go outside. I cannot go outside because my wife is in breast cancer treatment. I do not want to bring it home to her, we are staying at home.'

What is the point in making so many Tasmanians stay at home when it is such a tiny impost for the rest of us, and we know that it has a huge effect? It is not just an individual choice, although that is what Senator Eric Abetz is on about - it is all about the individual. This is Prime Minister Scott Morrison's individualistic response to everything and this is how it is boiled down.

The Liberals have only been able to suffer two years of doing things for the community. Two years was a very long time for the Australian and the Tasmanian Liberal Party to really care about other people and put it above their own self-interest. Now we can see what is going on. When it comes to it, right at the pinchiest point of it of the pandemic in Tasmania, 53 000 people have been infected so far; last year, 240. Look at the numbers. Look at the impact from long COVID. Just look at the science. Listen to the epidemiologists. That is what we were doing. We are not doing that today.

Who else is speaking for getting rid of masks? Steve Old was also quoted. The Tasmanian Hospitality Association (THA) said: 'Absolutely ludicrous that people who went to their local bars would still be forced to wear masks'. Mr Old, in December last year, was complaining about Christmas trading and people having to wear masks and saying:

A lot of businesses are saying it is not worth the risk of having a Christmas lunch if you've got to do the masks and stuff. We understand masks are probably here for a little while but this also means there are some issues that we need to work with government Health Tasmania on to make sure that, where it is not necessary, as in these rules can be changed slightly without any impact on staff or individuals. We'd hope they'd be open to those conversations.

It looks like Mr Old got his way again. He has had a chat. Was it to Public Health or was it to the Premier or the minister? We will never find out but he is quite happy to say publicly that he thinks things should be better for trading but we do not actually have any evidence that that is what happens.

As soon as the borders open, Tasmanians bunkered down. Businesses suffered. Events had the slowest trading they have ever had, like the Taste of Tasmania, the Gin Festival. None of them made money. Where is the evidence that it is good for businesses if you do not have universal mask wearing? It is not possible to have an individualised approach to this. Even if you are a person who is immunocompromised and you choose to go out with a mask on, if other people around you are not wearing masks, what are you going to do? Not eat because you do not want to take your mask off? Not have a drink along with everyone else because you do not want to take your mask off? If everyone, most of the time, in a public place is wearing a mask, it reduces the amount of virus that is in the air, simple as that.

It is also the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TCCI). Michael Bailey, shamefully, this morning was quoted as urgently calling on the Premier to repeal or modify COVID 19 restrictions around mask wearing, isolation requirements and COVID-safe bans. He said, 'We want to see the Government reduce restrictions in a blanket capacity and not in this piecemeal approach' . Heaven forbid that we would look at this from a Public Health protection perspective on a day-by-day basis with the aim of putting people's health and safety first. Those were the days when we did that.

So, who wants to keep the masks on? I have already mentioned that we have people with disabilities deeply concerned, people who are in cancer treatment, and older people and parents, particularly parents of children at risk. Instead, what we have at the moment is a policy from the Government not only to remove masks but it is a stealth policy. It is the Government's COVID stealth policy. It is about going back to normal business settings that suit the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, that suit the THA. It is also a policy to spend as little as possible on putting in place the supports and making the protections available from the Government's point of view, because it will cost the Government money.

We have Tasmanian Government aged care guidelines in place in Tasmania that have the words 'airborne transmission' in there. You can find that sprinkled throughout Tasmanian Government documents. We are not talking about flat-earthers here. It is not that words 'airborne' and 'virus' do not exist in government publications. They do. That is not the policy that is directing where the money flows and where the Public Health measures go. If it was we would be seeing an entirely different landscape. The reality of what an airborne transmission for this virus means is being ignored.

We wrote to Dr Veitch on 11 February. We are very concerned at why there has been no public education response at all from the Government about what effective mask-wearing needs to be. It is entirely clear that wearing a cloth mask, even a surgical mask, is not appropriate for reducing your risk of infection. I already mentioned the figures before: 83 per cent reduction with an N95 or P2 mask, a 55 per cent reduction with a surgical mask, and much less with a cloth mask. We drew the director's attention to recent research about the effectiveness of mask-wearing and the relative ineffectiveness of social distancing. Relying on social distancing, which is almost the last thing on the list of Public Health measures left in place in Tasmania, is not very effective at all if it is not accompanied by proper mask-wearing.

The research is very clear. We pointed out to Dr Veitch that social distancing without masking is associated with a very high risk of infection. When only the person who is susceptible wears a mask, there is a very high risk of infection, even with social distancing. Universal masking is the best strategy. It seems that we set the lowest bar in Tasmania in Public Health interventions. As a whole country we are an outlier internationally for not recommending high-quality face masks for use in the pandemic. We do not understand. The Director of Public Health has not responded to the letter on 11 February about why there has been no decision to mandate the use of N95 or P2 masks in Tasmania. This is what other countries are doing.

Only this week, New York City was considering removing the requirement for children aged two to four to wear a mask in childcare settings. All children, five years and over, where it is appropriate to do so, are wearing masks in school. That is how seriously they are taking the risk of transmission in closed-door settings. That is how normal it is to wear face masks in other countries. We have a problem with contradictory, independent epidemiological advice on the OzSAGE group, which is clear that we should have, from the beginning, made sure our children were protected back at school by wearing face masks if over five.

We wrote to Ms Courtney when she was the minister. She was overseas so she did not get it. She was on a holiday in France. We wrote to the minister asking her why she was not putting that requirement in place because that was an OzSAGE recommendation. They understand it works because they have seen the evidence from overseas. Why are we not doing this to protect our children? Why is the Premier thinking of completely removing the mask mandate at this time in the pandemic?

The best evidence of the Government's COVID-19 stealth policy is wrapped up in the words of the secretary, Kathrine Morgan-Wicks on Monday. She said:

It is up to the individual to really look at their own circumstances, particularly with vulnerable people, people who feel vulnerable.

Being vulnerable is not a feeling. It is a reality. If you are older, if you have not had a recent booster, if you are a child under 11 who is not vaccinated at all, if you are immune-compromised, if you are a person with a range of disabilities, it is not a feeling. Vulnerability is a reality. It is a real life risk. For anyone who becomes infected with COVID-19, three to four out of 10 people are at risk of developing some type of long-COVID-19, some deadly, or disabling symptoms health complications, some of which will affect you for the rest of your life. If you are a child we want to do everything possible to make sure you have the best opportunity of avoiding that infection. Why would the Premier and this Government go down this path now? It is anti-science. It is against the evidence of what other countries are doing that are successfully putting the brakes on infection spread in the community.

We want to see the unredacted advice. We want to know what the Director of Public Health said to the Premier before the Premier made the decision to pull back on wearing masks. Tasmanians want to understand how we could possibly be in this place. How we could be so out-of-step with the science, with the epidemiological, immunological, and virological evidence of what works. We do not understand it. Tasmanians do not understand it. They are angry. They are annoyed. They are outraged and they are very concerned. We want to see it.

It is no reflection on Dr Veitch or Dr McKeown. It is clear what has happened. They have been relegated to the status of every other public servant. That is par for the course for a government that has come back to putting the interests of the THA and the TCCI and Senator Abetz and the federal Liberal Party and their prospects in the future election first. That is what this is about. This is all about being the strong party that gets business back under control.

On behalf of Tasmanians we are absolutely sickened by that and we will continue to speak about the reality. We want to see the advice.