Thursday, 22 Oct 2020

Coronavirus: Can face coverings really protect you?

Face coverings have become a common sight in the UK as people try to stop the spread of coronavirus – but there is a debate about how effective they are.

The government has announced that, from 15 June, it will be mandatory to wear them on public transport in England as the COVID-19 lockdown continues to be eased.

While wearing a face covering does not protect the wearer, it may protect others if people are infected but have not yet developed symptoms of the coronavirus.

People are also being told to wear them in enclosed spaces, which also includes some shops.

However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that masks “on their own” will not protect from COVID-19.

People are not being told to wear them outdoors, while exercising, in schools or at offices.

A face covering can be a scarf, piece of cloth or a mask.

Some airlines, including easyJet and Ryanair, have introduced a requirement for passengers to wear face masks.

But according to official advice, surgical masks should be reserved for people who need them for protection while at work.

You can make coverings at home, but “the key thing is it should cover your mouth and nose”.

A study by Cambridge University says even basic homemade masks can reduce transmission – and could even help to prevent a second wave.

It said population-wide use of masks would keep the COVID-19 reproduction number (R rate) below one.

The evidence of coverings preventing the spread of infection from one person to another is “marginal but positive”, according to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that is advising the government.

An international report, published in The Lancet which analysed data from 172 studies in 16 countries, found that by wearing a face mask there is just a 3% chance of catching COVID-19.

Another study found that homemade face masks can help limit the spread of the coronavirus – but they do have downsides.

Seven types of face masks were put to the test by the University of Edinburgh, including surgical masks, respirators, lightweight and heavy-duty face shields, and handmade masks.

Aside from those with a valve, all of the face coverings were found to reduce the forward distance travelled by an exhaled breath by at least 90%.

The World Health Organisation, meanwhile, has stressed that there is no evidence that wearing one – whether medical or other types – by healthy persons in the wider community can prevent them from infection with respiratory viruses, including the coronavirus.

Fears have also been raised that they could give people a false sense of security and mean they are less observant of the rules around social distancing and hand hygiene.

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