Government not likely to provide free face masks to public, even if scientific advice changes

The Health Secretary has said the Government may not be able to provide free masks for the public even if scientific advice says the face coverings would be useful.

Wednesday, 22nd April 2020, 2:55 pm
Updated Wednesday, 22nd April 2020, 2:56 pm

The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) met yesterday to consider whether the advice to the public on wearing face masks should be changed.

And it was reported this morning that they had told ministers there would be a benefit to those who could not stay two metres apart - for example when travelling on public transport - wearing the protective equipment.

Speaking in the Commons today, Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn said: “It seems increasingly likely that part of what will be required to tackle this virus in future will be the wearing of masks by members of the public in certain situations.”

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A woman wearing a face mask walking past a piece of street art entitled s(P)ray, by French street artist Zabou, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: PA

And he asked Matt Hancock: “If the Government comes to the point based on the scientific advice that that is recommended, is the Government’s policy to provide masks to the public and, if so, what is his (Mr Hancock’s) plan to source them, given the difficulties we have seen with PPE supply, or will members of the public be expected to source their own?”

Mr Hancock responded: “We’ll follow the advice, we’ll listen to what the Sage advisory group says on masks and then we will implement that.”

But he said: “I can’t promise that we will give everybody free masks, I mean that would be an extraordinary undertaking, and we do have to make sure that we have supplies available especially for health and social care staff where the scientific advice throughout has been that the wearing of masks is necessary in those circumstances and we’ve got to make sure the provision is there for them.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that the only people who need masks in the general public are those who are sick, or caring for someone who is sick.

But in a new web briefing for the Royal Society of Medicine, Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary health care at the University of Oxford, lent support to the use of homemade masks.

“If 80 to 90% of us do it, and if the masks were say 80-90% effective, that would probably – the modellers say – be enough to reduce the effective R0 down to wipe out this disease and we can all get on with our lives,” she said.

R0 refers to the average number of people who will catch the disease from a single infected person.

She said that she wasn’t in favour of the compulsory use of masks but said that she thought many people would be supportive of the use of homemade ones for a temporary measure.

“How do you make your own mask? You take two pieces of cotton, or a piece of cotton folded over, and you take a pantyliner or something like that [with] waterproof backing, you stick it between those. And then you hook it around the back of your ears,” she added.

At present the public are getting mixed messages about masks, she said.

“I think once you get a clear message. I suspect more and more people are going to be taking this up,” Prof Greenhalgh added.

“I’m not the kind of person that wants the Government, knocking on my door, you know, as if they’re issuing gas masks or something like that and telling me I’ve got to wear it. I would much prefer this to be a voluntary thing for 80-90% of the population saying ‘I’ve got no particular reason why I shouldn’t wear one of these’.”

There would be exceptions such as people with facial allergies, those who object for other reasons and children under two.

She added: “This is a terrible, terrible disease, and anything we can do to stamp it out is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.”

But she added medical grade masks must be reserved for frontline workers.

Chris Hopson, the Chief Executive of NHS Providers, said that any decision on public mask wearing must not impact on NHS supply.

Meanwhile, a new initiative was launched to encourage the public to make their own face masks.

The campaign, www.Maskedheroes.uk , also aims to connect people who make masks to individuals and organisations in their community who need them.

A separate initiative – Masks for Heroes – is encouraging businesses which use personal protective equipment (PPE) to check whether they have any supplies which can be donated to frontline services while their businesses are not up and running.