“If there is an expectation that general members of the public should be out there wearing face masks, then face masks should be supplied to frontline workers in healthcare,” Health Workers Union assistant secretary David Eden said.
Mr Andrews said the government would consult with union and industry groups “about whether the advice around face masks in the workplace needs to also be updated”.
Trades Hall representatives and government officials were due to meet on Friday afternoon to seek assurances that frontline workers would be guaranteed access to masks.
Trades Hall secretary Luke Hilakari said: “They need to work out a system, otherwise everyone’s going to rush to the shops and it will all be cleared out.”
Victoria’s policy switch brings the state into line with advice from the World Health Organisation and the US Centres for Disease Control, and follows increasingly urgent calls from local medical experts for masks to be part of the arsenal against COVID-19.
Until now, Victorians had been asked to wear a mask only if they were sick. The new stance is a recommendation, not a requirement, Mr Andrews said. No fines will be given out for non-compliance and the advice does not apply to people under the age of 18, nor in schools.
Mr Andrews said social distancing, hand-washing, and staying home if you are sick remain the cornerstones of infection control but masks – even homemade ones – were useful.
He said that masks would likely be a long-term recommendation in Victoria even after the current peak was flattened.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton stressed that wearing a mask “is no substitute for keeping the distance from people, isolating when you are unwell and getting tested”.
“In those settings where you might be in close proximity with others – public transport, taxis, and Uber, shopping for food, shopping for goods, essential goods, visiting your GP – these are really important times to wear a mask,” he said.
The government plans to order 2 million reusable face masks plus 1 million single-use masks, which will be distributed over the coming months – with vulnerable populations getting them first.
Until then Mr Andrews said homemade masks – even scarves – would be acceptable.
All Woolworths staff will be provided with masks but they will not be forced to wear them.
A spokesman for the supermarket chain said masks had been made available to all staff members since April.
“We’ve implemented a wide range of measures to help maintain social distancing in our stores,” he said.
“We will continue to make masks available and pass on the latest government advice to our Victorian team members.”
Up until the past few weeks, the evidence that mask-wearing could cut infection rates had been “ambivalent”, Dr Sutton said, which is why the government had not made a recommendation on them up until now.
That began to change with the publication on June 1, of a meta-analysis in medical journal The Lancet showing that masks reduce transmission rates by about two-thirds.
That study led the Australian Medical Association to swing its support strongly behind masks, and Dr Sutton cited that study as one of the reasons for his change of heart.
As the growing scale of Victoria’s infection became clear this week, several experts made increasingly-urgent calls for an official masks policy.
Professor Sutton said that while teachers and students were not expected to wear masks they were free to do so if they wished.
Independent Education Union general secretary Debra James said school leaders had a responsibility to ensure clear hygiene and distancing protocols were in place.
“Schools should actively consider whether there are any situations in which the wearing of a mask is an appropriate additional measure,” she said.
Mark Murphy, principal of Whitefriars College in Donvale, said the boys’ school had a supply of masks on hand if any teachers wanted to wear one.
“We haven’t had any staff who’ve decided to wear them but we’ve got them there for them,” he said.
“We want everyone to feel safe and supported in whatever decision they make.
“If any students choose to wear a mask, we would be supportive of that.”
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Liam is The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s science reporter
Anna is a breaking and general news reporter at The Age.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.