Coronavirus: Who should wear a face mask?

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For the first time, people in England are being advised to wear face coverings in some enclosed spaces.

The Scottish government already recommends people wear them when in shops and on public transport.

What is the new advice?

The government for England says 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”. That would include, for example, on public transport and in some shops.

They do not need to be worn outdoors, while exercising, in schools, in workplaces such as offices, and retail, or by those who may find them difficult to wear, such as children under two or primary aged children who cannot use them without assistance, or those who may have problems breathing whilst wearing a face covering.

Advice in Wales has not changed and face coverings have not yet been recommended for the general public. People in Northern Ireland have been told to consider wearing face coverings if they are in places where they cannot social distance.

Why doesn’t everyone wear a mask now?

The advice talks about face coverings, rather than masks.

The World Health Organization (WHO) currently says only two groups of people should wear protective masks, those who are:

  • sick and showing symptoms
  • caring for people suspected to have coronavirus

It says medical masks should be reserved for healthcare workers.

Masks are not generally recommended for the public because:

  • they can be contaminated by other people’s coughs and sneezes, or when putting them on or removing them
  • frequent hand-washing and social distancing are more effective
  • they might offer a false sense of security

But that doesn’t mean they have no benefit at all for the general public – it’s just that the scientific evidence is weak.

Homemade cloth face-coverings can help reduce the risk of transmission in some circumstances – they might help stop the spread of coronavirus by people who are contagious but have no symptoms (known as asymptomatic transmission).

Scientists in Singapore suggest that risk is especially high in the 24-48 hours before an infected person is even aware they might have the disease.

Coronavirus is spread by droplets that can spray into the air when those infected talk, cough and sneeze. These can enter the body through the eyes, nose and mouth, either directly or after touching a contaminated object.

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What face masks are used by health workers?

The widespread use of face masks by the public could put NHS supplies at risk, says Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers.

In hospitals, different types of mask offer different grades of protection. The most protective is an FFP3 or, alternatively, an N95 or an FFP2.

NHS staff in lower-risk situations can wear a surgical mask. This includes healthcare workers within one metre of a patient with possible or confirmed Covid-19. These staff may be in hospitals, primary care, ambulance trusts, community care settings and care homes.

Where am I supposed to get a mask?

Some masks are still available online, but it can be difficult to know how safe they are and prices are often high.

Masks are out of stock in many High Street pharmacies as are those used for home improvements in many DIY stores.

And Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said that, unlike in France, the government cannot promise free masks for the general public.

What about homemade face masks?

There is lots of advice online about how to make them.

Suggestions include using common household items, such as cotton fabric from old T-shirts or bedding.

The government has published advice on how to wear and make your own cloth face covering which says:

  • A cloth face covering should cover your mouth and nose while allowing you to breathe comfortably
  • It can be as simple as a scarf or bandana that ties behind the head
  • Wash your hands or use hand sanitiser before putting it on and after taking it off and after use
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth at all times and store used face coverings in a plastic bag until you have an opportunity to wash them

Homemade masks are not regulated, whereas officially made ones have to meet safety requirements.

What do I need to know about the coronavirus?

What is happening in other countries?

Other countries have brought in different rules around the wearing of face masks.

They are to become compulsory on public transport in Germany, and in supermarkets and pharmacies in Austria.

Residents in Lombardy in Italy must cover their nose and mouth when outside and the French government plans to give out masks to the general public.

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Air passengers in Canada must wear a non-medical mask or a face covering, and in the USA, people are advised to wear “cloth face coverings” in supermarkets and pharmacies.

What else can protect against coronavirus?

Gloves and other protective wear are recommended for NHS staff working in places where they could encounter coronavirus.

Again, staff in the highest-risk scenarios are advised to wear fuller protection, rather than a simple apron, gloves, mask and goggles.

The general public are not advised to wear gloves or any other protective gear.

To protect yourself from coronavirus, the NHS recommends regular and through hand washing, covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and not touching your face with unwashed hands.

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