Omicron cases rise, health warning for Carols event

Twenty seven new cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in Victoria. It brings the total number of confirmed cases across the state to 98. It comes as public health authorities attempt to limit a new Christmas outbreak, after seven Covid-19 cases were linked to rehearsals and performances of the choir and orchestra for Carols in the Cathedral. In a statement, the Department of Health confirmed it was working with St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne. “It’s a useful reminder that the increased projection of aerosol particles while singing inside is associated with an increased spread of Covid-19,” it read. “We recommend singing outside or in a well-ventilated room (with windows/doors open), with shorter performances, mask wearing and physical distancing in use where possible.“It is important that anyone attending group singing over Christmas monitor for symptoms and don’t attend if any develop. People at high-risk of severe illness should reconsider participation in group singing right now.”MASKS STAY FOR HOLIDAYSVictorians will be forced to don masks in all indoor settings over the holiday season, as the state government takes an ultra-cautious approach to the milder Omicron variant.The state government moved to reintroduce a mask mandate from 11.59pm on Thursday night for all people aged over the age of eight, ­despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison only suggesting they be “strongly recommended”.It comes as Victoria recorded 2095 new Covid cases and eight deaths in the 24 hours to Friday.Hospitalisations also continued to climb, with 397 infected people in hospital with 75 in intensive care and 40 on a ventilator.NSW has recorded 5612 new cases and one death.Queensland reported a record 589 new infections.Chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton said the strict requirement was necessary because a strong recommendation wouldn’t have the desired impact. “We usually get about 50 per cent levels of co-operation or compliance with a strong recommendation. It goes to 95-99 per cent with a mandate,” Professor Sutton said.“Why would you introduce a half measure when you need the full measure to be in place?”The mandate applies to all indoor settings – except for domestic households – meaning people attending household Christmas gatherings won’t be forced to wear face coverings. But those going to major events with crowds bigger than 30,000 people must have a mask when moving outdoors, and in common areas such as bars and toilets. They can, however, be ­removed when seated in outdoor settings, like at the MCG for the Boxing Day Test this weekend.The measures will remain in place until at least January 12. There has been no official confirmation yet on whether masks will be required at next year’s Australian Open tennis, starting on January 17. Masks were mandated for all non-residential indoor settings in NSW from midnight until January 27.The WA government also reintroduced mask mandates for Perth and the Peel region, south of the state capital, after recording one case of Covid-19. Masks became compulsory for all non-residential indoor settings from 6pm on Thursday until at least 6am next Tuesday.Under new Victorian pandemic legislation, Health Minister Martin Foley received health advice and a series of recommendations from Prof Sutton before making an official call on restrictions.“I do have the obligation to seek wider views, be they, economic, social, cultural, mental health, to take all those into account and that’s precisely what I’ve done,” Mr Foley said.But he wouldn’t provide a “yes” or “no” answer when asked if he accepted all health recommendations, only to say: “I’ve acted overwhelmingly in accordance with Brett’s advice, as I always have … I’ve arrived at what I consider to be a measured, necessary, appropriate and proportionate set of outcomes.”Fines for not wearing masks can vary from between a few hundred dollars to more than $1000.Vic Locally-acquired Covid-19While not mandated, people are also “strongly encouraged” to stick to seated service while at hospitality venues, and to save their dance moves for well ventilated outdoor areas. Revellers will be required to wear masks while on the dancefloor of any nightclubs, and they must also be worn to and from gym changerooms, but can be taken off during “strenuous activity”.People are also being urged to work from home over the festive period, prompting concerns from leading business groups about a stall in the city’s recovery.Victorian executive director of the Property Council of Australia, Danni Hunter, said the changes would set the city back “immensely”.“Melbourne’s green shoots of recovery are only just starting to emerge,” she said. “We’re disappointed with the move to encourage work from home. We urge the government to consider this a short, sharp response with a clear expiry date in early January to allow as many Victorians to return to the office, without masks, as soon as possible.” Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief Paul Guerra said he was disappointed by the mask mandate. “The chamber would have preferred mask wearing to remain an individual choice and would like to see the requirement removed before office workers return early in the New Year,” he said. “However, we recognise that the mask-wearing requirement will still enable every business to open without density limits which is crucial as our economy roars back.”Small Business Australia executive director Bill Lang said traders harboured fears over what may come next.“It is starting to feel very much like March 2020 and small business families have growing concerns that, should we begin to see increasing numbers of Covid cases after these mask and work-from-home rules are implemented, the next steps will be density limits on venues and ultimately another circuit-breaker lockdown,” Mr Lang said.“Omicron is a test of how we as a state decide to live with the Covid endemic as this virus will not magically disappear and there will always be new variants, new threats. “We need health settings that take into account the health threat posed balanced with the economic and emotional carnage that extreme restrictions bring,” he said.Acting Premier James Merlino said lockdowns weren’t being considered because Victoria was one of the most vaccinated places in the world.He described the new measures as “common sense, sensible changes”, adding: “We’re not going back to lockdowns, we’re vaccinating our way through.”

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