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We need a strong national voice to get us through this pandemic

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt was also telling doctors on Thursday to get the message right about self-isolation after patients received conflicting advice about who must self-isolate after a COVID-19 test. The authorities must agree on a national set of rules about testing that keeps the community safe, encouraging people to come forward for a swab while also preventing possible transmission.

Across the country, we are also struggling to understand the argument about masks – who should wear them and when, and what sort of mask is effective. The Red Nose foundation had to issue a statement on Wednesday to stress how dangerous it was to put a mask on a baby, after parents contacted it for advice over new rules that made masks mandatory in Melbourne for those aged 12 and over. The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services website states that masks must not be worn by infants aged under two because of the risk of choking and suffocation, but the message had clearly not gotten through to parents.

A public health campaign at the start of the pandemic effectively taught us to wash our hands and stay 1.5 metres away from each other, but the messaging from authorities since has been conflicting, confusing or absent. It’s a situation that puts at risk public unity and the national gains we have made in fighting COVID-19.

When this pandemic first took hold in Australia in March, we found a trusted leader in then chief medical officer Brendan Murphy. His frank and fact-based advice, coupled with his calm and measured manner, instilled trust and confidence in his message and pulled us together and pulled us along.

But the national voice has receded, to be replaced by a cacophony of state authorities. Murphy has stepped down to take over as secretary of the federal Department of Health and the recruitment process to find his replacement is yet to begin. In the meantime, deputy Paul Kelly is acting in the role but has struggled to build the same profile as his predecessor: to be the trusted national leader that Murphy was.

State health officers are respected and trusted, but the federal government must step up and unite the country once more. The recruitment campaign for a new chief medical officer must begin in earnest. While different infection rates require different rules in each state, we need a figure like Murphy to ensure consistency in messaging across the country and to lead the nation through this pandemic. And we need a renewed and more nuanced public health campaign that tells us what to do and why we should do it when it comes to socialising, isolating and protecting ourselves and one another.

One strong and consistent national message, delivered by a voice we can trust, will drown out the jurisdictional confusion. It will give us confidence in our leaders’ decisions, enthusiasm to follow the rules and the strength we need to fight off fatigue and get through the long and dark days that lie ahead.

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