As the pandemic continues, so do questions around just how effective face coverings are.
And there’s mixed feedback, to say the least. Previously reserved for healthcare professionals in the Western world, face masks have become symbolic – a fashion statement, if you will, of the COVID-19 era. Countries around the world have been adopting the coverings since the virus quickly ricocheted from country to country, but can they really help us tackle the issue at hand?
In the tug of war of ‘do we?’, ‘don’t we?’, we’ve collected all the information you need to know about using face masks during the outbreak.
What is the official advice for face masks in the UK?
As we start to move through the phases of government’s lockdown exit plan and more and more people leave the house, it is now advised that people should wear some kind of face covering if heading to enclosed spaces where social distancing may not always be possible, for example in shops or on public transport. While this hasn’t been made mandatory, Boris Johnson has said that wearing masks in public “will be useful” as the UK begins to exit lockdown. This advice was already recommended in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
It is important to note that a face covering is not the same as a face mask, which include surgical masks or respirators used as PPE by healthcare and other keyworkers. The UK government is following advice from both scientists and the World Health Organization, who have stated that PPE should be reserved for health professionals, and that public use of masks should not impede access for medical workers.
The Royal Society recently submitted new evidence to the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE), the government’s advisors, stating that masks (including homemade ones) could filter viral particles by between 50 and 100% of the efficiency of proper surgical masks. A 50-page document outlining the UK’s new lockdown rules, which was released on Monday (May 11), states that: “Face-coverings are not intended to help the wearer, but to protect against inadvertent transmission of the disease to others if you have it asymptomatically.”
Where do I need to wear a face mask?
Based on government’s advice, you “should aim to wear a face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible and they come into contact with others that they do not normally meet, for example on public transport or in some shops”.
Currently, very few places in the UK require you to wear a face mask, however, Eurostar recently updated their travel information, stating that passengers will be required to wear coverings if they wish to board their services. Additionally, a number of international airlines, such as United and American Airlines are now requiring passengers and staff to wear masks on board. It is currently unclear if these precautions will be taken by other travel companies.
What does the science say?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has a vast library of research and advice for a number of Coronavirus-related concerns, and they’ve been providing official advice to governments around the globe. In regards to face masks and coverings, the WHO has stated that they are only required in certain situations, such as when caring for someone infected (or suspected to be) and if you have symptoms yourself. The use of a mask if you have a cough or are sneezing can help to limit the spread of the virus, although, we must also acknowledge that the use of masks is not a fail-safe prevention tool, and that the virus can still spread when using them. If you do have symptoms, you should stay home and ask a housemate, friend or family member to help out if you need anything.
In a document providing advice to health professionals and the general public, the WHO has advised: “Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including COVID-19. However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted. Whether or not masks are used, maximum compliance with hand hygiene and other IPC measures is critical to prevent human-to-human transmission of COVID-19.”
While this is the current advice, there have been contrasting studies by scientists around the effectiveness of face coverings. Researchers from Delve (Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics) have found that both masks and homemade coverings are beneficial in the fight against COVID-19, saying: “Our analysis suggests that their use could reduce onward transmission by asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic wearers if widely used in situations where physical distancing is not possible or predictable, contrasting to the standard use of masks for the protection of wearers,” continuing “If correctly used on this basis, face masks, including homemade cloth masks, can contribute to reducing viral transmission.”
So, should we be wearing them?
While the use of masks is great as a precautionary method, the current evidence around masks’ ability to protect you from the virus isn’t sufficient. Take into consideration that the current advice from both the government and WHO states that they are recommended in certain situations but not compulsory, and that they are only beneficial for limiting the spread of droplets when infected.
Government also stresses that face coverings should not be used by children under the age of two, by those who suffer with respiratory conditions, or anyone who might find it difficult to manage them correctly, for example primary-school-age children without assistance.
If the use of a mask makes you feel safer when heading out in public, make sure you’re following other advised procedures, such as social distancing and washing your hands regularly with anti-bacterial soap or gel.