Covid-19: Face Masks

On 11 May 2020, the Government advised the general public in England to use face coverings in enclosed public spaces where social distancing might not be possible, for example on public transport.

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The Government stated that the purpose of using such face coverings is to stop asymptomatic people inadvertently spreading Covid-19, rather than to protect the wearer from infection. The Government emphasised that surgical masks and respirators should be reserved for healthcare workers. On 4 June 2020, the Government announced that face coverings would be mandatory on public transport in England from 15 June 2020. Very young children, disabled people and those with breathing difficulties would be exempt. Possible sanctions for non-compliance would be refusal of travel or a fine, or both.

On 1 June 2020, the medical journal The Lancet published a systematic review and meta-analysis of the evidence on how social distancing and mask-wearing affects the transmission of the viruses causing Covid-19 and closely related illnesses. This research found that “wearing face masks protects people (both healthcare workers and the general public) against infection”. The study found that the use of respirators or surgical masks by people exposed to infected individuals was associated with a large reduction in risk of infection. Both respirators and surgical masks have a stronger association with protection than single-layer masks. The authors state that factors such as the availability of masks for healthcare workers should be taken into account when deciding national policies.

On 5 June 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) updated its guidance on using face masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Previous guidance, published on 6 April 2020, stated that there was insufficient evidence to recommend that the general public either wear or not wear masks. The updated guidance notes that there is still no direct evidence on the effectiveness of universal masking to prevent infection with respiratory viruses. However, it now advises governments to encourage the general public to wear masks in specific situations. The WHO states that in situations where social distancing cannot be maintained the general public should wear non-medical masks. Vulnerable people, such as those over 60 and those with comorbidities, should wear a medical mask.

Advice regarding face masks differs around the world. In Spain, everyone over the age of 6 is required to wear a face covering both indoors and outdoors if social distancing might not be possible. In France, masks are compulsory on public transport and in secondary schools. In the USA, Germany and South Korea, requirements vary between regions.

On 11 June 2020, Lord Campbell-Savours (Labour) is due to ask Her Majesty’s Government “what plans they have to review their advice on the wearing of masks in public to address Covid-19”.

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