We’re here to guide you through the coronavirus lockdown. Sign up to the Life newsletter for daily tips, advice, how-tos and escapism. Lockdown means there are far fewer people on the streets, but you’ve probably noticed that many who do venture out are now wearing face masks – whether medical or makeshift.
However, the messaging around whether or not we need to wear them has been confused, in part due to the global nature of the coronavirus pandemic and the varied stances that health authorities in different countries have taken.
It’s left many of us with questions: do they or don’t they work? Should we be buying masks right now when our NHS workers, the people who are face-to-face with this virus day in, day out, are drastically short of personal protective equipment (PPE)? Can’t we just make our own at home instead?
Here, we attempt to answer some of those big questions with the help of Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert and Professor in Medicine at University of East Anglia, who has analysed numerous studies on the use and effectiveness of face masks.
What’s the purpose of face masks?
Typically, surgical masks are worn during surgery to protect a patient from droplets from a surgeon’s mouth, explains Prof Hunter. However, they are now being used in healthcare environments with Covid-19 primarily to protect the healthcare workers from the virus. “Although they do work both ways, they are primarily designed to stop the wearer infecting other people,” he says.
Are they failsafe?
“Nothing is 100% [failsafe],” says Prof Hunter, but surgical masks are effective at capturing droplets and intercepting airborne viruses. Research found that N95 masks in particular were very effective at blocking transmission of SARS, for example.
The issue with face masks is that they must be worn correctly, changed frequently, removed properly, disposed of safely and used in combination with good overall hygiene behaviour in order for them to be effective.
“Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water,” says WHO. “If you wear a mask, then you must know how to use it and dispose of it properly.”
Healthcare professionals are obviously trained in this, but for the rest of us, the chances of mucking up are high. Research has also shown that compliance with the recommended hygiene practices reduces over time when people use face masks over an extended period. A general rule of thumb is that they should be replaced after three hours, says Prof Hunter.
Who should be wearing a face mask right now?
As it stands, Public Health England (PHE) recommends that face masks should be used in clinical settings such as hospitals, and by people with symptoms of coronavirus. A recent study backs this up, suggesting that surgical face masks could prevent transmission of human coronaviruses from symptomatic individuals.
What about everyone else? Dr Jake Dunning, head of emerging infections and zoonoses at PHE, says: “There is little evidence of widespread benefit and for the majority of people, in terms of being protected against other people’s infections when doing usual activities – such as an essential shop at the supermarket – the most effective thing you can do is to wash your hands frequently and use tissues when you cough or sneeze, or cough into your arm.”