For weeks now the UK has speculated over whether wearing masks outside might be necessary during the coronavirus outbreak.
And eight weeks into lockdown, the government yesterday provided some concrete guidance – advising people to wear ‘face coverings’ outside of the home. The coronavirus epidemic means the new government guidelines for lockdown have changed recently, with Boris Johnson’s address to the nation on Sunday night.
What is the new government advice on wearing face masks?
The official word from Boris Johnson’s 50-page document on the roadmap out of lockdown, has stated that people are now being encouraged to wear a face covering in public. The new guidance says, “As more people return to work, there will be more movement outside people’s immediate household.
“This increased mobility means the government is now advising that people 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.”
Face masks and face coverings: know the difference
However, the new advice will not be enforced by law. There is a difference between the words ‘face mask’ and ‘face covering’ – the latter being the word the government has opted for. A face mask is a surgical-grade mask only required for care workers or the sick. The general public is being advised to wear a ‘face covering’, which is simply something that covers your mouth and nose. This could be a scarf, a handmade face mask, or a piece of cloth.
So where exactly should we be wearing a face covering – and how do they help?
Should I wear a mask to go shopping?
The government advises that you only need wear a face covering, and this doesn’t need to be a surgical grade mask, if you are somewhere where social distancing is difficult.
This means that you are advised to wear one on public transport, such as on the tube or bus, or in some shops where you are in close proximity to others.
If you’re wondering, should I wear a mask to go shopping, the simple answer is yes. A supermarket is likely one of the places where the government is suggesting that you might want to wear a face covering. However, masks do not need to be worn outdoors – while exercising for example – in the home, or by those who might find them difficult to wear, such as children or those with general breathing difficulties.
At the moment, they are also not being advised in schools or offices either, if you are returning to work at either of these places soon.
Do I have to wear a face mask in public?
According to the World Health Organisation, face masks are only helpful for those who are unwell and showing symptoms of COVID-19, and for those who are caring for the sick – e.g NHS workers or social care staff. Protective masks for care staff are specially designed to protect them from viruses (including coronavirus), filtering out airborne particles. But members of the public do not need to, and should not, wear masks like these, not least because it would reduce the supply for those who really need them. They should opt for face coverings instead.
If you are not a care worker, face coverings are generally only thought to be useful for one reason:
- If you wear one, they may help to stop you spreading COVID-19 to others if you have symptoms, or are asymptomatic (have no symptoms but have the virus)
- A face covering is not thought to stop you catching the virus
However, use of face coverings gets tricky though when you consider those who may experience COVID-19 without any symptoms, or those who may be about to get sick, which is when some scientists believe you may be more contagious.
In that sense, it may be helpful to wear them to protect others from the virus – and this is one of the reasons the UK government has suggested using them.
Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care at the University of Oxford, told PA that she thinks the wider use of masks will be helpful in combatting the spread of the virus. She said, “I’m delighted that the Government has changed its position on face coverings for the lay public. The science on this is clear: Covid-19 is most commonly transmitted by droplets emitted when we cough, sneeze, shout, sing and even just breathe in close proximity to others.
“Cloth face coverings are highly effective at blocking droplets coming out of the mouth and nose. They’re not perfect, but if you can stop 90% or 95% of the droplets this will cause a very dramatic reduction in the number of people who catch the virus.”
Why might wearing a face covering be risky?
Countries such as France and China have made face masks mandatory for residents, but their benefits are still uncertain, as there is not a huge amount of scientific data to support their use.
Currently, the WHO does not actually recommend face coverings for healthy people, explaining that there is “no evidence” that they protect people who are not sick.
They suggest that wearing them may even be unhelpful if you are healthy, because removing them and putting them on may contaminate them or you, and, they could offer the public a false sense of protection against the virus, meaning they may be less likely to follow the vitally important basic hygiene rules.
If you choose to wear a face mask or covering, it is equally important that you are:
- Regularly washing your hands for 20 seconds at a time
- Practising social distancing
- Not touching your face
- Using your elbow or a tissue to cough and sneeze
However, the WHO does suggest wearing the mask if you are unwell. This is because a face mask may stop you from transmitting the virus to others.
Where to buy face masks in the UK
Cotton coverings or masks bought from local shops are being recommended. It may be possible to find face masks in your local pharmacy, local newsagents, or local DIY store. However, due to huge demand, they may well be selling out fast. You can find many face coverings being sold online though – you’ll find a wide selection of reusable face masks here.
But you should not be buying ones that are used by the NHS, with the WHO stating that it is vital medical masks are set aside for care workers.
However, if you’re not having much luck finding a covering, it is fine to make one at home, with officials saying, “the key thing is it should cover your mouth and nose”.
How to make a face mask
The government has also published advice on making a cloth face mask out of an old t-shirt, or by sewing, which you can find here.
Stay safe, everyone.