As face masks have become more and more popular amongst people looking to protect themselves whilst in public, the UK appears to be lagging behind due to a lack of clarity from the government about whether we should be wearing them.
It looks likely that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) will tell the British public that it is not necessarily important for people to wear face masks in public, but can choose to wear a scarf or another form of face-covering during the coronavirus outbreak.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that it is not the top priority for healthy people to be wearing face masks, unless they are taking care of someone with COVID-19 or if they are regularly coughing or sneezing.
Further, proper hand-washing and social distancing are much more effective forms of protection for the UK public, whilst hand masks may be a contamination risks for those inexperienced in using them and may offer a false sense of security for users.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says that face masks should be prioritised for healthcare workers. Emphasising that they shouldn’t replace other protection measures, they do recommend though that non-medical masks could be used as an extra precaution in busy areas, such as supermarkets and public transport.
Thus, if you are going to be wearing a mask, you should get one that doesn’t put NHS supplies at risk, according to Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers.
In hospitals, staff tend to use various masks that provide different levels of protection, the most effective being an FFP3 (above), or an N95 or FFP2. These reduce exposure to smaller particles, filters out at least 95% of airborne particles. They are also very tight-fitting and allows minimal leakage.
NHS staff in lower risk working conditions, where they stay at least one metre away from a patient with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, tend to wear surgical masks (below) instead, which protect wearers from large droplets but not from smaller airborne particles.
With this in mind, the general public does not need to be wearing the most protective masks on the market to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Besides, many masks are often listed for high prices online and it cannot be confirmed how safe they are.
Masks are also out of stock in High Street pharmacies, whilst the Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that it is unlikely the UK will be able to provide everyone with a face mask like France has, saying that ‘It would be an extraordinary undertaking’.
Homemade face masks are a possible form of protection, with much advice existing online explaining how to make them. Commonly, household materials are suggested to be converted into a face mask, such as cotton fabric from old T-shirts or bedding.
However, homemade masks are not necessarily the safest form of masks, as they are not regulated, whilst officially-made ones have to meet certain safety requirements.
Cloth masks, however, are not recommended and may even increase the chance of infection according to European advisers. This is because there is a high chance the virus could go through the cloth and be retained by the moisture in it.
In all, any form of face mask will give an added layer of protection from catching the coronavirus, especially in situations where social distancing is harder to adhere to, like on public transport.
Whilst some masks give more protection than others, the public should make sure not to take away the most effective masks from those that need them the most, mainly NHS staff.
Regardless of the form of mask being worn though, if any at all, the consensus is that social distancing and frequent hand-washing needs to be included in the protection for them to have any real impact on slowing the spread of the coronavirus.