Coronavirus UK: ‘Our understanding of face mask effectiveness is evolving’

Face masks have become the new normal on streets and cities across the world as the coronavirus pandemic continues. A growing majority are deciding to cover their mouth and nose with bought or even homemade masks, in spite of World Health Organization (WHO) advice.

Now an expert has addressed the growing confusion about how affective face masks are in tackling coronavirus.

Dr Anthony Renshaw, Medical Director, Medical Services, Northern Europe at International SOS, told there is simply insufficient scientifically-robust evidence to categorically say how effective faster asks are.

He said: “Masks are recommended for those in a healthcare setting, caring for somebody who is sick, or if you are sick yourself.

“In these examples, you should wear a mask to prevent spreading the infection and this is consistent with the WHO’s position.

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“However, things are changing quite rapidly and so our understanding as to how effective masks might be, is evolving.”

The senior scientific adviser does, however, believe face masks should play an important role in testing environments.

He said: “For the general community, we could consider wearing face masks, especially when visiting closed spaces, using public transport, where social distancing is really very hard to do.

“I think that’s the way many countries are now moving.”

Dr Renshaw cites two examples of countries moving towards wide adoption of face masks.

He said: “Austria is asking people to wear masks when visiting supermarkets and the like.

And Singapore, who were quite specificly aligning themselves with the WHO, until fairly recently – even they’re asking people to wear face coverings out in public.

“But what’s really key, is anybody using a face mask you should consider it only as a complimentary measure.

“A mask is not at all a replacement for all of the other good stuff we are being asked to “do: the physical distancing, respiratory and hand hygiene.

“It’s very unclear still how effective masks are going to be.

“However, because there is no conclusive evidence doesn’t mean there’s there’s no evidence that it doesn’t work either.

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“And that’s been the position of many countries who have advocated using face masks.

“The other key point is medical masks and respirators are really reserved for healthcare staff on the front line that need it the most – that’s a really important measure, because there is such a supply shortage in many countries.”

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, said on Monday the UK position on masks was under review and would change if the scientific evidence warranted it.

This followed remarks by David Nabarro, a UN special envoy on COVID-19, who appeared to depart from the WHO’s line by suggesting the UK would have to get used to wearing masks.

He told the BBC: “The virus isn’t going to go away and we don’t know if people who have had the virus stay immune afterwards.

“Yes, we will have to wear masks.”

Despite the mixed messages, the WHO guidance updated a week ago, has remained consistent.

The WHO has stuck to the line that masks are for healthcare workers – not the public.

The organisation said in a statement: “Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including Covid-19.

“However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted.”

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