A former health minister has said he remains unconvinced that face coverings will prevent a second deadly wave of Covid-19.
South Down MLA Jim Wells said he is concerned that face coverings will instead contribute to an economic slump that will claim more lives than the coronavirus pandemic.
The politician, who has had the DUP party whip removed, was speaking out after his party colleague, Sammy Wilson, was criticised for posting a photograph of himself enjoying an ice-cream with the comment: "Support local business. You can't eat ice-cream when you're muzzled."
Face coverings are now mandatory on public transport and are recommended in shops across Northern Ireland, however, retail organisations have expressed concerns that the move may put people off hitting the high street at a time when businesses are struggling to attract shoppers back after lockdown.
Mr Wells said: "By all means, wear a face covering, they don't cause any harm but I'm not convinced they are much use. I wear one when I go to the supermarket or when I was on the ferry to Rathlin because I have to, although I find it uncomfortable.
"I'm concerned that masks may discourage people from going to the shops when we are trying to prevent further economic decline, that in the long term will cause more ill health than Covid-19. Ironically, I have seen people on two different occasions smoking while wearing masks and smoking kills far more people than Covid-19 does," he said.
"What we do know is the recession of 2008 has caused a huge number of excess deaths and we haven't yet seen the full impact of Covid-19 on our economy but it is likely to be worse than anything we have ever seen.
"I'm not sure a scatter gun approach is the right way to protect people, I think we should be looking at protecting those most at risk, those who have underlying health conditions and elderly people, and allowing the rest of society to get on. The fact is, if you are under 30 in Northern Ireland, you're more likely to be killed in a car crash than by Covid-19."
Health Minister Robin Swann was unavailable for comment yesterday and the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, has refused to be drawn on the comments made by Mr Wilson.
However, her special advisor, Emma Little-Pengelly, has responded to his comments with a tweet saying: "True! I don't advise eating in a mask (obviously)... apart from that then use a mask. Do you know what's worse than wearing a mask? It is being in intensive care on a ventilator or not being able to breathe. If not for you, importantly keep our more vulnerable loved ones safe!"
While the DUP has declined to comment on the matter, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office last night said: "The Executive is urging the public to wear face coverings in certain indoor settings, including retail. We all have a personal responsibility to protect each other by wearing a face covering voluntarily if we can.
"Ministers recognise there are a range of views on this issue and have taken an incremental approach to implementation. The Executive will evaluate compliance rates on August 20 and if necessary, will implement the power to make this mandatory."
Meanwhile, UUP health spokesman Alan Chambers referred to Mr Wilson's comments as a "self-centred stunt".
He said: "While he may think face coverings are a trivial matter, the reality is that they are a key tool in keeping members of the public safe. Unlike Sammy Wilson, for the many tens of thousands of people that have been shielding for months, face coverings are not a laughing matter.
"The Health Minister is clear that he thinks face coverings should become commonplace. That is not just his personal opinion, but a belief backed up with clear medical and scientific evidence. It is shameful that some other politicians are sending mixed messages at such a crucial time in the ongoing fight against Covid-19."