Editor’s note: This article has been updated in light of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us are on high alert about hygiene. But while practices such as hand washing and physical distancing are universally accepted as effective methods for slowing the spread of the virus, others, such as the wearing of masks by members of the public, are subject to greater debate. So does wearing a mask protect you from viruses?
According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), face masks are designed to stop the spread of “virus-laden droplets,” which are globules of bodily fluids "generated when infected persons speak, cough, or sneeze." These droplets, the CDC warns, "can be deposited onto the mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract of susceptible persons who are near the droplet source." Basically, transferring these droplets from one person to another can cause the recipient to become unwell.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reviewed its guidelines on face masks in early April 2020 after a study from Hong Kong found that they could offer some protection to members of the public. The WHO review concluded that there is no evidence that wearing masks, surgical or otherwise, in public prevents healthy people from getting infected with COVID-19. The organisation's advice therefore remains that, aside from frontline workers, ordinary people should only wear face masks if they are ill and showing symptoms of COVID-19 or they are caring for people suspected of having the virus.
Despite this, a WHO special envoy, Dr David Nabarro, told the BBC he believed "some form of facial protection is going to become the norm" in general society. But he did warn: "Don't imagine that you can do what you like when you are wearing a mask. [It] doesn't give you the excuse to disregard social distancing."
Currently, the WHO advises that masks are only effective when used in conjunction with frequent hand-washing, and that people should avoid touching the face, even while wearing a mask. When worn, masks should be removed from behind, without touching the mouth or nose area, and immediately discarded in a closed bin.
Up until May 11, the UK government was not actively encouraging the use of face masks. However, in a 51-page document outlining their exit strategy for COVID-19 lockdown, the government advised that people should "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."
Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the UK’s national academy of science the Royal Society, recently recommended that you should always carry a mask and to wear them “whenever you are in crowded public spaces,” per BBC News. “What we would like for the government is to be a bit stronger and clearer about the messaging,” he added.
A new page appeared on the gov.uk website on May 11 advising people on the correct practices for wearing face mask and also a guide on how to make them from materials you have at home.
However, Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, stressed that face masks were “not a substitute” for physical distancing.
The Scottish government announced on July 2 that face coverings will become mandatory in shops as restrictions are eased, the BBC reports. However, per the Independent, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also emphasised the fact that face masks were were by no means a replacement for hand-washing and physical distancing measure.
Sturgeon said of the decision: “We have proceeded for a period with a voluntary approach to this. Some people are complying and some are not, I’m not pointing fingers or trying to blame people for that but we have to make a judgement if we’re heading into a period where more people are interacting. We’ve been having a discussion with more sectors like retail about reducing distancing, and that increases the importance of mitigations like face coverings.”
Other politicians have called on the UK government to make it mandatory for members of the public to wear masks outside of their homes, following action from other countries. On April 17, the mayor of London Sadiq Khan and the leader of the Labour party Keir Starmer called on the government to make the wearing face masks compulsory in certain public spaces. In a statement given to the BBC, he said: "The evidence around the world is that this is effective," Mr Khan said. "I'm lobbying our government and advisers to change their advice, and I want us to do that sooner rather than later. They are already reviewing this on the basis of our representation." Starmer later added that he believed it was "inevitable" that the government would soon advise members of the public to wear masks in certain settings.
There is some support for this from experts. Professor Trisha Greenhalgh of the University of Oxford shared a paper she and other experts had written in the British Medical Journal on the wearing of face masks, noting: "It's time to apply the precautionary principle to face masks." Per the Guardian, Greenhalgh and her colleagues argue wearing masks “could have a substantial impact on transmission with a relatively small impact on social and economic life.” The paper does, however, note that there is a lack of evidence for the efficacy of masks as a protective measure against COVID-19 and further research is needed.
However, shortages of surgical masks may prevent mass use by the general public. In the UK, many NHS hospitals are struggling to locate enough supplies of PPE for workers.
As for other viruses, including the regular flu that we see each winter, the official line with regards to prevention, recommended by Dr Richard Pebody, Head of Flu at Public Health England, is: "As well as getting the flu vaccine, practising good hand hygiene by catching coughs and sneezes in a tissue, throwing it away and washing your hands after can help limit its spread — catch it, bin it, kill it.”
When it comes to protecting yourself from flu, three rules have been embraced by the NHS:
- Catch it — catch the germs when you cough/sneeze by using a tissue.
- Bin it — throw it away carefully after you have used it, ensuring it does not contact anyone else.
- Kill it — wash your hands carefully with antibacterial hand soap to kill the germs that are lingering post sneeze. In addition, a flu vaccine is recommended by the NHS for people "aged 65 and over, pregnant women, children and adults with an underlying health condition (such as long-term heart or respiratory disease), and children and adults with weakened immune systems."
If you or someone you’ve been in close contact with appears to have shown or be showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and coughing, visit the NHS website in the UK to find out the next steps you should take or visit the CDC website in the U.S. for up-to-date information and resources. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.