Anthony Albanese cites mental health concerns as reason for not tightening Covid rules

by Josh Butler
Prime minister says people should stay home if they are sick but there is no prescriptive position on working from home

Anthony Albanese has defended the government’s reluctance to introduce stricter Covid measures, citing civil disobedience, vaccinations and mental health as reasons not to.

Albanese’s comments on Wednesday evening followed an earlier interview, in which he stopped short of calling for Australians to work from home if they can, as the chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, advised on Tuesday in the face of the rising Covid wave. Albanese said the nation needed a “balance” to also consider the interests of business.

Asked about the Victorian chief health officer’s call for a return to mask mandates and working from home, Albanese said the “consensus” at the national level was to encourage masks, not mandate them.

“Part of the issue here, I know, speaking to the NSW premier last week, is there are mandates for masks on public transport,” he told the Project. “Only about half the people are actually doing it. Now do you get on the trains and buses and arrest people or fine people for not doing it?”

Asked why stricter rules aren’t being introduced, Albanese replied there are “two things at play”.

“One is mental health considerations … the imposition of controls on people’s behaviours has an impact on people’s health.

“And particularly young people, we’re seeing a really problematic increase in incidents of severe consequences when it comes to young people’s health, but others as well.”

Albanese said the second difference between now and 18 months ago is Australia’s high level of vaccination, which provides “a level of protection”.

Despite numerous questions across an earlier radio interview and press conference about the latest recommendation from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee that employers should allow working from home if feasible, the prime minister did not directly make that request himself.

“I don’t think there’s a prescriptive position that can be put forward,” Albanese said.

On Tuesday, Prof Kelly said the AHPPC – comprised of all state and territory chief health officers – had reiterated its advice which “called on employers to allow work from home if feasible”.

“Employers should review their occupational health and safety risks and mitigations, and their business continuity plans. They should consider the feasibility of some employees working from home, wearing masks in the workplace and support employees to take leave when sick,” Kelly said.

Guardian Australia understands some large employers, including Telstra, have recently updated their guidance to encourage staff to work from home.

Appearing on Melbourne’s 3AW radio on Wednesday morning, Albanese encouraged people to stay home if they were sick, as well as urging Australians to access vaccine booster shots and Covid antiviral drugs if they were eligible.

But despite questioning from host Neil Mitchell about the need for a “clear message” on how Australians should take Covid precautions, Albanese said every workplace was different.

“It depends what your work is of course. For many workplaces, they’ve adjusted to be able to work from home, and that’s becoming more and more something that I think is a permanent feature for some businesses … but for many people, of course, it is simply impossible to work from home due to the nature of their work,” the PM said.

While many office workers have worked from home at stages through the pandemic, many of those in frontline sectors, such as healthcare, hospitality and services industries, cannot undertake work remotely.

Pressed by Mitchell on whether people should work from home if they were able to, Albanese again demurred.

“It depends upon the workplace, of course,” he said. “But for many people, it’s convenient. They work in occupations whereby they can deliver for their business just as easily working from home… But for me, I’ve got to get out and about.”

In a later press conference in Melbourne, Albanese again declined to explicitly recommend working from home if possible. Instead, he appeared to leave the decision up to individual businesses, and noted some businesses would be hurt by wider working from home practices.

“What we’ve seen is that businesses have adjusted. And I think one of the consequences of the pandemic is that some work practices will change permanently,” he said.

“Businesses will continue to make those decisions. They need to make them on the basis of safety, but also for some people we need to recognise that they can’t work from home.

“Of course, we need to recognise there’s a consequence for that as well. If you’re a business that relies upon people coming into the CBD to shop, in retail or hospitality, then your business can be hurt by that as well. So it’s a matter of getting the balance right. I’m confident that with a bit of common sense applied we can do that.”

The health minister, Mark Butler, appearing with Albanese at the press conference, recommended employers discuss “very temporary” altered working arrangements with employees.

“Our view, I think you see this reflected in Prof Kelly’s statement, is that that’s really a case-by-case basis. Employers should be engaging with their employees,” he said.

“In good practice, this should not be a decision employers take unilaterally, they should be engaging with their employees, that is the best approach to workplace health and safety, and together coming to a view of about the extent to which working from home arrangements, on a very temporary basis, could be put in place.”

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Albanese again “highly encouraged” Australians to wear face masks indoors if social distancing was difficult, but firmly rebuffed talk of reinstating mask mandates.

“Wear a mask if it’s appropriate. And stay at home if you are sick,” he said. “We do want to encourage that behaviour. People have been incredibly responsible during this pandemic.”