U.K. Mulls Advice on Face Coverings While Saving Masks for NHS


(Bloomberg) --

The U.K. is considering changing its guidance on people covering their faces to help prevent the spread of Covid-19, while protecting the supply of protective equipment to frontline health and care workers.

Ministers will receive advice after a meeting of scientific advisers on Thursday on whether wearing cloth masks or scarves could slow infections in confined environments, including work places and on public transport, according to a U.K. official familiar with the discussions.

Any move will aim to prevent asymptomatic people passing on the disease to others rather than stopping the wearer being infected. The central message will continue to be for people to stay home to stop transmission of the virus, and any advice will be limited to ensure the public don’t buy-up medical quality masks needed by the National Health Service.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has been fiercely criticized over its failure to provide adequate protective equipment for doctors and nurses, and will avoid any change in policy that would further jeopardize that supply, the person said. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the BBC that no decision has yet been taken.

‘Taking Advice’

“It’s about assessing what is right, in terms of learning from people around the world and the experiences they’ve had, learning about how this virus moves and how it works,” Lewis told BBC Radio. “We will take the advice of the scientists and medical advisers.”

While Johnson’s government has responded to claims it acted too slowly on the virus by saying it has been following the advice of scientists, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty emphasized at the daily televised Covid-19 briefing on Wednesday that it is ministers who have taken the decisions.

Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, the body that represents the U.K.’s family doctors, said advising people to cover their faces would “make sense” to help stop the spread of the disease.

“The guidance 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 greatest need -- and that’s the health professionals,” Marshall told BBC Radio. “It’s perfectly reasonable to wear a bandanna around your mouth or whatever, that will work, it won’t be quite as good but it will be good enough.”

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