Coronavirus: Will the UK Government advice on masks change? Are they effective?

24 April 2020, 10:24 | Updated: 24 April 2020, 10:26

EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Many questions are being raised around face masks amid the Covid-19 crisis- will the UK Government advice on masks change? Are there enough masks for key workers and the general public? And are face masks effective?

With the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe and the UK on lockdown, many people are asking if lockdown measures could be eased if everyone wore face masks in public.

Advice from health organisations across the world is mixed and some countries have insisted people wear masks while out in public.

In the UK the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is met to discuss the issue at its regular Thursday meeting, with a decision from ministers expected soon.

Public Health England (PHE) recommends masks for NHS staff and social care workers but does not suggest other people wear them outside.

Will the advice change?

The Government's top advisers have met to discuss using masks.

A top doctor has said it would make sense to advise the public to wear coverings on a voluntary basis and expects the Government to alter its guidance.

The chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners Professor Martin Marshall said: "If [people] are coughing and spluttering then it makes complete sense to wear masks in order to protect other people."

He said: "I think the guidance that we're expecting to hear is that the wearing of face masks is a voluntary activity not mandated and it certainly makes a lot of sense to focus limited resources that we have at the moment on those who have the greatest need and that's the health professionals."

But, The Health Secretary told LBC on Friday that the science around wearing facemasks is weak and the government currently have no plans to make wearing them compulsory.

It is now mandatory to wear facemasks on public transport in the majority of Germany and many scientists have said wearing them may help slow the spread of coronavirus.

But speaking to Nick Ferrari on LBC, Matt Hancock suggested there is not enough evidence that it is worthwhile.

He insisted: "The government position hasn't changed. We of course look at the scientific evidence all the time.

"On masks, as more information comes through, the science is constantly evolving and we always bear in mind that science when we make our decision. As of today, the government position is unchanged.

"We've got to make sure that people who really need the high-end surgical masks and clinical masks get them.

"It is absolutely clear that if you're working in a hospital or in a care home, then there's a need for a mask, so we've got to make sure that's the top priority, especially when the evidence of the use of masks by the general public is extremely weak."

The Government advice on face masks could change
The Government advice on face masks could change. Picture: PA

Are there enough masks for key workers and the general public?

NHS bosses have urged the Government to make sure that there are enough masks for medical staff before making any compulsory orders for the public.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals and NHS trusts in England, asked ministers to "fully assess" the potential impact on healthcare supplies.

In a statement on Monday, he said: "Fluid repellent masks for health and care staff are key to safety and to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

"Securing the supply of masks, when there is huge global demand, is crucial. This must be a key consideration for Government.

"There needs to be clear evidence that wearing masks, along with other measures, will deliver significant enough benefits to take us out of lockdown to potentially jeopardise NHS mask supply."

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Will I be given a mask if they are made compulsory?

The Government has said it "can't promise" everybody will be given a mask for free if the public are forced to wear them.

Matt Hancock was asked the question by former Labour minister Hilary Benn in the House of Commons, and replied: "I can't promise that we will give everybody free masks, I mean that would be an extraordinary undertaking, and we do have to make sure that we have supplies available especially for health and social care staff, where the scientific advice throughout has been that the wearing of masks is necessary in those circumstances and we've got to make sure the provision is there for them."

Are they effective?

According to European scientists, there is no evidence that non-medical standard face masks or other covers offer protection to wearers.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says that a non-medical mask has a filter efficiency of between two and 38%.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says masks are useful in some settings, including when worn by those who are ill, but says “the wide use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not supported by current evidence”.It says medical-grade face masks should be reserved for health care workers, a position currently adopted in the UK.

Can I make my own mask?

Masks can be made from cloth materials found at home, or items that can be wrapped around the face such as a scarf, see our video at the top of the page for a short instruction on how to make your own mask.

Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary healthcare at the University of Oxford, told a Royal Society of Medicine web briefing: "How do you make your own mask? You take two pieces of cotton, or a piece of cotton folded over, and you take a pantyliner or something like that [with] waterproof backing, you stick it between those.

"And then you hook it around the back of your ears."

Do homemade masks work for medics?

European researchers have suggested cloth masks may not be effective for healthcare settings.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said rates of illness were much higher among healthcare staff using masks made out of cloth instead of surgical masks.

It said: "Altogether, common fabric cloth masks are not considered protective against respiratory viruses and their use should not be encouraged.

"In the context of severe personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, and only if surgical masks or respirators are not available, homemade cloth masks (eg scarves) are proposed as a last-resort interim solution by the US CDC until availability of standard PPE is restored."

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