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Medical evidence for using face masks in public is 'pretty weak', says First Minister

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Concerned: Arlene Foster

Concerned: Arlene Foster

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Concerned: Arlene Foster

The value of face masks in preventing the spread of Covid-19 is under review by the NI Executive, yesterday's Stormont press conference heard.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested earlier this week that the use of face masks by the public could form part of the measures the UK government will implement as it begins to ease the Covid-19 lockdown.

But yesterday, Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster appeared cool on the idea, saying that the scientific evidence about the efficacy of masks against the virus spread was "weak" - but indicated they could be helpful in building confidence.

The deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein MLA Michelle O'Neill, told the briefing that masks could instil a false sense of security - but could be helpful if they gave people confidence.

"Robin (Swann) the Health Minister has said that there is a danger that perhaps people will think they are protected because they have a mask.

"So we continue to keep that under review," she said.

"But we don't want to take away from the fact that as of right now, the masks that are out there are for the healthcare workers, those on the front line - but we will certainly come back to the conversation around face coverings if that gives some assurance when people are moving around more."

The Prime Minister said on Thursday that they will be "useful" both for stemming the disease as well as "giving people confidence" that they can go back to work. "I do think that face coverings will be useful both for epidemiological reasons but also for giving people confidence they can go back to work," Mr Johnson said.

Experts have argued that coverings are unlikely to prevent an individual from contracting the virus, but may reduce the number of infected people who are not showing symptoms from spreading Covid-19.

Masks are commonly won in many Asian countries - especially by people using public transport.

However, Northern Ireland's first Minister Arlene Foster was concerned as to how the masks of face coverings would be used by the public.

"I think the scientific evidence in relation to masks is pretty weak, in relation to 'does a mask help to stop the spread of the disease and keep the reproductive figure below 1?' Mrs Foster told the briefing.

"It may be the case that people feel more comfortable wearing masks if they are out and about and if that is the case of course, it's a matter for them.

"But then you have to think about what sort of a mask is it, is it a face covering, if it's a face covering in the form of a scarf, then what happens to that scarf when you take it off, how do you dispose of it, how do you clean it - all those things have to be thought through," she said.

"So we'll have a further conversation about the mask issue - but definitely, we do not want to take away from those people who need PPE in a hospital or care home setting.

"If we are to say that there is an advisory in relation to masks, it will be masks that aren't used in that sort of a setting."

Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has already recommended that people in Scotland wear face coverings in places where staying two metres apart was challenging, such as in shops and on public transport - but UK Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said this week that the Government was anxious that people could act in a "cavalier" way if they were told to wear masks.

Belfast Telegraph