U.K. Scientists Want Stronger Guidance on Masks to Contain Virus


U.K. scientists advising Prime Minister Boris Johnson want stronger public guidance on how to wear face coverings, but are unconvinced about following other countries in mandating the use of medical-grade masks to contain coronavirus.

High-specification masks would not make a big difference to transmission among the general population, they believe, and wearing fabric coverings properly -- both indoors and outdoors in crowded areas -- is more important.

The debate over face masks has been re-ignited in the U.K. and across Europe due to the emergence of new faster-spreading strains of the virus. Germany said this month medical-grade protection must be worn in shops and on public transit, while Austria introduced similar rules requiring FFP2 masks -- which have particle filtering -- or their equivalent in indoor public spaces.

While U.K. scientists see the advantage of high-specification masks in some scenarios, they believe the government’s focus should be on how people wear regular coverings.

In a paper dated Jan. 13 released on Friday, a sub-group of the U.K. government’s emergency scientific advisory panel said masks will be more effective if constructed from 2-3 layers of high-quality materials and “fit tightly over nose and mouth to prevent virus escaping.”

Supply Fears

But there are also concerns within government about supplies of high-specification masks and whether rolling them out to the general population would affect availability for front-line health workers.

That has echoes of the early days of the pandemic, when Johnson’s government held off recommending the use of face coverings until mid-May and didn’t make them mandatory in shops until late July -- four months after the country first went into lockdown.

Officials said at the time the evidence for widespread wearing of face masks was unclear and health workers should get priority amid a general shortage of protective equipment.

With England now in its third national lockdown, schools closed and people ordered to stay at home, the mask issue is unlikely to go away -- especially if data from Germany and Austria prove their effectiveness.

‘No Specific Evidence’

In the paper released Friday, the scientists called for clearer standards to enable the public to select more effective masks, but point out there is “no specific evidence” relating to face masks and the new variant identified in the U.K., which has so worried governments around the world.

They noted, though, that the World Health Organization has recommended the use of medical-grade face masks by people over the age of 60 or otherwise vulnerable to the disease because they are “likely to provide a more consistent and reliable level of protection than a cloth face covering.”

Johnson has said the lockdown will not be lifted until March 8 at the earliest, and the government has not ruled out even tighter restrictions in the coming weeks amid intense pressure on hospitals.

New U.K. Virus Strain Stabilizes in Most Regions During Lockdown

Estimates released Friday by the Office for National Statistics suggest coronavirus infections have leveled off across the U.K, but they are not falling fast. Caseloads remain high -- meaning that a high rate of hospitilizations and deaths will continue in the short-term.

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