Dominic Perrottet backflips on ‘personal responsibility’ mantra to reintroduce mask mandate in NSW

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The New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, has backflipped on his “personal responsibility” approach to mask-wearing by reintroducing a mandate requiring them to be worn indoors while also reinstating social distancing measures in hospitality venues.

The premier additionally announced a return to mandatory QR code check-ins at some retail venues.

Perrott’s about-face on Thursday came as the state reported 5,715 new Covid cases and one death. There were 347 people in hospital with 45 in intensive care.

Some 1,500 health workers are currently furloughed either because of Covid-induced illness or as a result of isolation orders.

Perrottet loosened Covid restrictions on 15 December despite health experts suggesting it was a “no-brainer” to keep them in place due to the rapid spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant of coronavirus.

On Thursday, the state’s chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said the Omicron variant had displaced Delta as the predominant form of the virus, accounting for about 80% of cases currently in the state. She said the arrival of the strain in Australia “largely explains the steep rise in cases”.

Perrottet claimed the changes were “slight” and said they would have a short shelf-life. Both the mask mandate – which starts at midnight – and the one person per 2 sq metre rule – starting 27 December – would only remain in place until 27 January, the premier said.

“We’ve always said as we have moved through this that we will monitor the situation and the evidence in front of us.”

The NSW government has been under increasing pressure to reintroduce the indoor mask mandate, particularly after the federal chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, advised masks “should be mandated in all indoor settings including retail, hospitality when not eating or drinking, and entertainment facilities”.

Perrottet on Thursday refused to say when his own chief health officer had first advised the government to reintroduce the mandate – saying only that the government had conducted a “balancing act” between public health and the economy.

Related: Pandemic Scott wants to shapeshift into Post Pandemic Personal Responsibility Scott | Katharine Murphy

The premier sought to attribute the change to an increasing number of health workers being subject to isolation orders or ill with Covid-19. That’s despite the health minister, Brad Hazzard, having said that number was already 1,400 on Tuesday.

“We just ask everybody to use personal responsibility [and] please be cautious as we move through this phase,” Perrottet said.

The government has said it will investigate the possibility of providing free rapid antigen testing in a bid to stem the ballooning wait times at Covid-19 testing centres. On Thursday, Perrottet also called on people not to line up for a test unless they had symptoms.

Some 160,000 tests were performed in the 24 hours to 8pm on Wednesday night and the premier said it was placing enormous strain on the system. Some 20% of those tested were doing so because of inter-state border restrictions that require a negative Covid test before travel, he said.

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