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Covid NSW: Many Sydneysiders CHOOSING to wear masks – so are restrictions needed?

 Thousands of Sydneysiders are choosing to wear face masks despite mandates being dropped — as the government urges Aussies to take ‘personal responsibility’ for their health as we move to the next stage of the pandemic.

Since December 15, NSW residents have no longer been required to wear masks or check into venues via QR codes for most indoor settings as the state adjusts to its new ‘Covid normal’.

As eased restrictions came into effect last Wednesday, Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant advised people to continue mask-wearing indoors amid fears case numbers could balloon to 25,000-a-day by January.

Many people across NSW’s capital city have heeded Dr Chant’s advice, donning face coverings in public in a bid to avoid spending Christmas in lockdown as the super-mutant Omicron sweeps across the state.

Thousands of Sydneysiders have opted to wear face masks in public settings to protect their health prior to the festive season as debate rages on over whether mandates should be introduced. Pictured: Shoppers in Sydney’s Pitt St Mall ahead on Christmas 

But despite Australians proactively seeking to protect their health, leading epidemiologists have called for masks to be introduced to deter the escalating outbreak.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has refused to bow down to pressure, urging Aussies to take responsibility for their wellbeing by accessing vaccines and booster shots.

‘What’s key to us is personal responsibility. Vaccination has been key, booster shots are crucial to keep people safe, and as we move through the next phase, case numbers will increase,’ he said on Sunday.

‘That is the new normal.’

Scott Morrison took a similar position on Tuesday – which saw NSW and Victoria collectively record more than 4000 new cases – saying he would urge states to refrain from reimposing tough restrictions at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

The prime minister, who called high-levels talks to discuss the nation’s Omicron response, said he would tell state leaders Australia needs to learn to live with the virus. 

‘The states have the total authority when it comes to public health orders,’ Mr Morrison said.

‘The Commonwealth does not have the power to direct those state and territory governments.

Scott Morrison has voiced his opposition to reintroducing mandates, saying on Tuesday: 'We have to move from a culture of mandates to a culture of responsibility'

Scott Morrison has voiced his opposition to reintroducing mandates, saying on Tuesday: ‘We have to move from a culture of mandates to a culture of responsibility’ 

‘What I will be saying to them, and I know a number of premiers agree with this, is we have got to move to the next phase of how we live with this virus.

‘The time for that heavy hand is behind us. We just need to live with this virus sensibly and practically.’ 

The prime minister’s comments flew in the face of advice state leaders were given yesterday by the Commonwealth’s top doctor.

On Monday, Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly wrote to the premiers urging them to implement ‘minimal to moderate restrictions’ to protect their hospitals from being overwhelmed.  

Masks remain compulsory for shopping in Victoria and Queensland but optional in NSW where Mr Perrottet wants to treat his citizens ‘like adults’.  

Despite Professor Kelly’s support for mandates, Mr Morrison told a press conference in Brisbane on Tuesday morning that he does not back mandates and instead only wants state governments to issue updated advice to wear masks.

‘We are putting in place measures that Australians can live with. What that means is we have to move from a culture of mandates to a culture of responsibility. That’s how we live with this virus into the future,’ he said.

NSW scrapped QR codes for most venues from December 15 as Covid vaccination rates soared past 90 per cent

NSW scrapped QR codes for most venues from December 15 as Covid vaccination rates soared past 90 per cent 

‘We have got to get past the heavy hand of government and we have got to treat Australians like adults and we all have our own responsibility in our communities and for our own health.’

The NSW government lifted a raft of rules last week amid high vaccination rates, with 93.4 per cent of residents over 16 now fully jabbed and 94.9 per cent having received one dose, 

Under the eased restrictions, face coverings are now only mandatory in hospitals, airports, public transport, or for indoors front-of-house hospitality staff who aren’t fully vaccinated.

Similarly, check-ins are only required at high-risk venues including pubs, nightclubs, hospitals, gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons, funerals and indoor music festivals with more than 1,000 people.

As end-of-year celebrations kick off around the country, NSW on Tuesday recorded the nation’s highest-ever daily of Covid cases, 3057, while Victoria’s counted 1245 infections. 

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet (pictured) has vowed to refrain from reintroducing mask mandates -despite the state's Covid case numbers continuing to climb

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet (pictured) has vowed to refrain from reintroducing mask mandates -despite the state’s Covid case numbers continuing to climb

Despite soaring case numbers, Mr Perrottet has vowed to maintain the state’s hard-earned freedoms, emphasising the focus should be on hospital admission figures – not infections.

‘We are taking a balanced and proportionate response that is completely focused on keeping people safe while at the same time opening up our economy end ensuring that people are able to work and provide for their families,’ he said. 

Meanwhile, health ministers in both New South Wales and Victoria have issued a joint letter urging the Federal Government to fast-track the booster roll-out, allowing Australians to access the jab just four months after their second dose instead of five.

It comes after a study found a third dose increased the level of neutralising antibodies in Omicron patients by around 37 times compared to waning immunity from two doses.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation last week decided to maintain the five-month wait time between doses, but is constantly reviewing the interval. 

The national vaccine advisory body is also considering requiring three jabs for someone to be considered fully vaccinated in light of the Omicron strain. 

Omicron appears to be less severe than previous strains like Delta, but the variant is much more transmissible.

Huge lines of cars are seen at a Covid-19 test at Bondi Beach in Sydney as thousands scramble to get tested before seeing family over Christmas

Huge lines of cars are seen at a Covid-19 test at Bondi Beach in Sydney as thousands scramble to get tested before seeing family over Christmas

Shoppers wear masks as they pick up presents ahead of Christmas in Sydney's CBD

Shoppers wear masks as they pick up presents ahead of Christmas in Sydney’s CBD 

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee warns even if Omicron is less severe the surge in cases could greatly ‘strain health system capacity’.

There are currently 833 people in hospital with Covid in Australia, compared to a peak of 1,541 on September 21.

Thousands of Australians have been avoiding going to pubs and parties in the build up to Christmas to prevent being plunged into isolation if they are deemed a close contact of a positive case.

Testing centres have also seen an influx of people preparing to travel interstate, with most states and territories demanding a negative PCR test within 72 hours of arriving.

Such restrictions are not in place between Victoria and New South Wales, due to similarly high case loads.

Although the prime minister has ruled out re-introducing lockdowns and mandates, he has urged Australians to be cautious ahead of the festive season. 

Despite high-risk venues now being open, Mr Morrison urged people to refrain from mingling in densely packed spaces to avoid catching the virus.  

‘Omicron is moving substantially amongst the younger population,’ he said.

‘They are at parties, nightclubs, hospitality venues.

‘I would encourage them, particularly if you’re going to spend time at Christmas with older family members, you want to give that big night out a miss, particularly if you’re going to see one of your elderly relatives over Christmas.’

Why is the new Omicron variant so scary?

 What is so concerning about the variant?

Experts say it is the ‘worst variant they have ever seen’ and are alarmed by the number of mutations it carries.

The variant — which the World Health Organization has named Omicron — has 32 mutations on the spike protein — the most ever recorded and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain. 

Experts fear the changes could make the vaccines 40 per cent less effective in a best-case scenario.

This is because so many of the changes on B.1.1.529 are on the virus’s spike protein.

The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike from older versions of the virus.

The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognize the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body's immune system struggles to recognize it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body's cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness

The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognize the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body’s immune system struggles to recognize it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body’s cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness 

But because the spike protein looks so different on the new strain, the body’s immune system may struggle to recognise it and fight it off.

It also includes mutations found on the Delta variant that allow it to spread more easily.

Experts warn they won’t know how much more infectious the virus is for at least two weeks and may not know its impact on Covid hospitalizations and deaths for up to six weeks. 

What mutations does the variant have? 

The Botswana variant has more than 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein.

It carries mutations P681H and N679K which are ‘rarely seen together’ and could make it yet more jab resistant.

These two mutations, along with H655Y, may also make it easier for the virus to sneak into the body’s cells.

And the mutation N501Y may make the strain more transmissible and was previously seen on the Kent ‘Alpha’ variant and Beta among others.

Two other mutations (R203K and G204R) could make the virus more infectious, while a mutation that is missing from this variant (NSP6) could increase its transmissibility.  

It also carries mutations K417N and E484A that are similar to those on the South African ‘Beta’ variant that made it better able to dodge vaccines.

But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variant — which was linked with a surge of cases in the state in March — that has been linked to antibody escape. 

Other mutations it has include G446S, T478K, Q493K, G496S, Q498R and Y505H, although their significance is not yet clear. 

Is it a variant of concern?

The World Health Organization has classified the virus as a ‘variant of concern’, the label given to the highest-risk strains.

This means WHO experts have concluded its mutations allow it to spread faster, cause more severe illness or hamper the protection from vaccines. 

Where did B.1.1.529 first emerge?

The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong on November 23. The person carrying the new variant was traveling to the country from South Africa.

The UK was the first country to identify that the virus could be a threat and alerted other nations.  

Experts believe the strain may have originated in Botswana, but continental Africa does not sequence many positive samples, so it may never be known where the variant first emerged.

Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, told MailOnline the virus likely emerged in a lingering infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.

In patients with weakened immune systems infections can linger for months because the body is unable to fight it off. This gives the virus time to acquire mutations that allow it to get around the body’s defenses.

Will I be protected if I have a booster?

Scientists have warned the new strain could make Covid vaccines 40 per cent less effective at preventing infection – however the impact on severe illness is still unknown.

But they said emergence of the mutant variant makes it even more important to get a booster jab the minute people become eligible for one.

The vaccines trigger neutralizing antibodies, which is the best protection available against the new variant. So the more of these antibodies a person has the better, experts said.

Britain’s Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: ‘The booster jab was already important before we knew about this variant – but now, it could not be more important.’ 

When will we know more about the variant?

Data on how transmissible the new variant is and its effect on hospitalizations and deaths is still weeks away.

The UK has offered help to South Africa, where most of the cases are concentrated, to gather this information and believe they will know more about transmissibility in two to three weeks.

But it may be four to six weeks until they know more about hospitalizations and deaths.

What is the variant called?

The strain was scientifically named as B.1.1.529 on November 24, one day after it was spotted in Hong Kong.

The variants given an official name so far include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.

Experts at the World Health Organization on November 26 named the variant Omicron. 

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Read more at DailyMail.co.uk