Online searches for the term “face mask” shot up on Monday following a change of recommendation from the UK government that people should wear face coverings in indoor situations where it is hard to socially distance, such as shops or buses.
But, crucially, this advice only applies in England, leading to confusion among some residents in Wales as to what they should do.
What is the Welsh Government’s advice on wearing face masks?
First Minister Mark Drakeford has been quite clear on this point: his government is not recommending or mandating that people in Wales have to wear masks in public during the coronavirus pandemic.
He told the public during the daily coronavirus briefing on Monday that Wales’ chief medical officer Dr Frank Atherton advised there was only a “marginal public health case” for the measure.
“It doesn’t protect you, the wearer, from anybody else, but it may protect other people from the risk of you infecting them,” Mr Drakeford said.
However he did concede there was a case for wearing them if it gave people “confidence” but stressed they should not be looking to source medical-grade masks which are needed for healthcare workers.
Dr Atherton said at a previous press briefing he would not advise anyone to wear a face mask or covering, saying social distancing by staying two metres apart was far more important.
On Tuesday he explained why he was concerned about recommending them.
“We don’t know if there will be enough masks in the UK, let alone in Wales, if the public and employers are trying to buy clinical grade masks at the same time as the NHS,” Dr Atherton said.
Masks might bring “a small benefit” to public health if everyone wore one, he said, but there was a “bigger, proven benefit” if all health and social care staff wore clinical grade masks when caring.
He said anyone with symptoms should be staying at home anyway.
Wales is now the only UK nation not to recommend face coverings in certain indoor settings.
What has changed for England?
For the first time, people in England are now being advised to wear face coverings in situations where they may not be able to practise social distancing, such as on public transport or in some shops or “they come into contact with people they do not normally meet”.
It comes as changes to lockdown advice mean people who cannot work from home are being actively encouraged to go back to work, and Boris Johnson has started to lay out a “roadmap” to loosen the lockdown over time, which will inevitably lead to people mixing more.
The advice only applies to certain indoor settings – so no need while outdoors and exercising – and does not include use in schools and offices or by those who may find them difficult such as children under two or those with breathing difficulties.
Scotland went early on face mask advice
The Scottish Government was ahead of England on recommending the use of face masks at the end of April, in similar situations to those announced on Monday for its southern neighbour, namely in some shops and on public transport.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said at the time she had spoken about masks because some people were already wearing them and she did not want people to feel “invincible” by doing so, stressing the limitations of non medical-grade face coverings and the primary importance of social distancing.
The Scottish Government updated its advice on Monday, keeping the face covering as a recommendation, and saying there may be a “limited benefit” in the specific circumstances mentioned.
Northern Ireland advises covering
Northern Ireland’s Department of Health said last Thursday it was recommending, but not mandating, the use of face coverings “for short periods in enclosed spaces, where social distancing is not possible”.
Health Minister Robin Swann added: “In practice, these circumstances will largely relate to public transport and retail environments.”
Like Scotland and England, the advice stresses that coverings are no substitution for social distancing measures, and also continued to stress the importance of hand washing and the “catch it, bin it, kill it” tissue use advice for coughs and sneezes.
What do scientists say on face mask use?
The World Health Organisation says medical face masks should only be worn by a person caring for someone with Covid-19.
However, on the use of non-medical masks, usually made of fabric, it says the scientific evidence for their benefit is limited.
One study showed medical workers using fabric masks were at increased risk of respiratory disease rather than decreased risk when compared with medical masks.
For ordinary people, the masks’ protective effectiveness is “unknown”, but they may protect others – not the wearer – if the wearer is an asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic carrier of the disease.
There can be risks associated with using masks, including a false sense of security leading people to breach social-distancing guidelines, and self-contamination that can occur by touching and reusing a contaminated mask.
Its conclusion? “Currently there is not enough evidence for or against the use of masks (medical or other) for healthy individuals in the wider community.”