Does wearing a face mask help protect you?
From the 15th June, face coverings or masks will be compulsory on public transport and during hospital visits in England and all hospital staff will be required to wear surgical masks under all circumstances. However, face coverings will continue to only be a recommendation in other public spaces.
With research into COVID-19 still ongoing, the available information and advice in regards to the use of face coverings can be conflicting and inconsistent.
What are the potential benefits of wearing a face mask?
Face masks may reduce transmission from asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people
The UK government requires people displaying symptoms of COVID-19 to stay at home for at least 7 days from when their symptoms appeared. However, the incubation period for COVID-19 is on average 5-6 days and can be up to 14 days. During this period, infected individuals can be contagious. This results in a period of up to 14 days in which the virus can be unknowingly transmitted, making the spread of the virus harder to track and control.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control states “A face mask may help reduce the spread of infection in the community by minimising the excretion of respiratory droplets from infected individuals who may not even know they are infected and before they develop any symptoms. In this respect, mask use by asymptomatic persons can be regarded as an extension of the current practice of face mask use by symptomatic individuals”.
Face masks and coverings can help minimise hand to face contact
Coronavirus is spread from person to person via droplets released when a person sneezes or coughs. The droplets can land on people nearby as well as objects and surfaces. Coming into close contact with an infected person or touching contaminated surfaces can lead to infection. To reduce the risk of infection, people are advised not to touch their eyes, nose or mouth.
Wearing a face mask can remind people not to touch their face. Many people touch their face frequently and unconsciously so in instances in which a person forgets not to do so, the mask can act as a barrier. You must wash your hands immediately after touching a used face mask or covering.
Wearing a face mask can reinforce safety awareness
As the UK government begins to ease lockdown measures, businesses are preparing to open and people are starting to return to work. As it is not possible to see a virus, it can be easy to forget that the risk is still present.
Face masks and coverings can act as a reminder that the threat has not disappeared, we are now living in a new normal and should continue to take the recommended precautions to minimise the risk of a second surge of infections.
What are the potential problems with wearing face masks?
Wearing a face mask can create a false sense of security
The most important actions to help prevent the spread of coronavirus are hand washing and social distancing. The use of face masks, particularly medical masks, may create a false sense of security, leading to neglect of these actions, and unlike face visors, face masks do not offer full face coverage so it is still possible to transmit the infection via the eyes.
Face masks may also give a false sense of security to infected individuals and those displaying symptoms, leading to people not staying at home when they are ill and increasing the transmission risk.
Public use of medical masks can lead to a supply shortage
The UK government has urged the public not to buy medical grade masks in order to save the supply for frontline health and care workers. However, there is no official restriction so medical masks are still available to purchase by the public at an accessible price.
With little to no evidence available in regards to the effectiveness of non-medical face masks and homemade face coverings, many people are deciding to purchase medical masks as they offer a guaranteed level of protection. This results in a shortage of supplies, impacting frontline health and care workers.
Face masks are often used incorrectly
Wearing a face mask outside of a healthcare environment is uncommon so many people do not have the education or knowledge to ensure face masks are used safely. If a mask prevents infection, it will become contaminated on the outside. If the mask is not removed and disposed of correctly, touching the mask will contaminate your hands, therefore contaminating any surface you touch and increasing the risk of infection.
For a face mask to be effective, it is essential that they are used correctly. The World Health Organisation reports that improper handling and removal of a contaminated face mask may increase the risk of transmission.