The Government’s top scientists have pledged to wear face masks in some situations as Boris Johnson said they would become voluntary from July 19 across England.
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said he would wear a mask “under three situations, and I would do so, particularly at this point when the epidemic is clearly significant and rising.”
He told a Downing Street briefing: “The first is in any situation which was indoors and crowded, or indoors with close proximity to other people.”
He said he would also do so if he was asked by any “competent authority” and thirdly, as a “common courtesy” if others felt uncomfortable.
The Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said: “I’m exactly the same in terms of mask-wearing.”
It comes as the Prime Minister told the briefing he would wear a mask in crowded places and as a matter of courtesy, but stressed that in situations such as sitting alone in a train carriage, “people should be entitled to exercise some discretion”.
Experts have been divided on whether people in England should be asked to continue to wear face masks after July 19.
Documents released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) late on Monday suggest face masks are likely to be needed as part of a package of measures aimed at keeping cases low.
Earlier on Monday, Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said he thought lifting face mask restrictions was fine, though people who are vulnerable may wish to take extra care.
He said Covid-19 “will never go away”, adding that “our grandchildren’s grandchildren will be getting infected”, though he said it will become more like the common cold over time.
Prof Hunter said he feels OK “with face mask-wearing becoming optional”, adding: “I do think that some people will probably feel less anxious by wearing them and that is OK.
“What I would say is that if you are in a vulnerable group and are going into a crowded indoor environment then it is sensible to still wear one, at least whilst infection rates are high.
“Also, if you are visiting a very vulnerable individual indoors when Covid is common in the community, then I would wear one for their protection, even though I have been fully vaccinated.”
Robert Dingwall, professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, said: “The benefits of masks have always been uncertain because the quality of the evidence in both directions is so weak.
“Any benefit has probably been quite small, or it would have been obvious even from weak studies, and needs to be offset by the psychological impact on population fear and anxiety, on children’s learning and interactions with adults, on people with communication issues, and on the substantial number of adults who cannot wear masks because of underlying health conditions or other disorders, including previous trauma from assaults or abuse.
“In my opinion it is a positive step to make mask-wearing voluntary.”
In my opinion it is a positive step to make mask-wearing voluntaryProf Robert Dingwall, Nottingham Trent University
But Dr Laurence Aitchison, from the department of computer science at the University of Bristol, said: “Our research has shown mask-wearing reduces the spread of Covid-19 by around 25% if everyone wears them.
“At a time when mask-wearing is decreasing and mask mandates are being lifted, the findings confirm that masks do indeed have a strong impact on lowering transmission of the virus and remain an important measure in our response against it.
“As people are now used to wearing them, it’s a simple thing everyone can do to continue managing risk while also resuming normal activities.”
Scientific evidence suggests that face coverings worn over the nose and mouth reduce the spread of coronavirus droplets from coughs, sneezes and speaking.
If there is advice to keep wearing masks, I know I will and I'll be encouraging others to do so as wellNikki Kanani, NHS England
The main purpose is to protect others from Covid, but there is some evidence they also protect the wearer.
One Royal Society report last summer found that the use of cotton masks was associated with a 54% lower odds of infection in comparison with the no-mask groups, when tested in a healthcare setting.
In another study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists calculated that wearing face coverings prevented more than 78,000 infections in Italy between April 6 and May 9 2020, and more than 66,000 infections in New York City over just a few weeks.
Earlier on Monday, Nikki Kanani, primary care director for NHS England, told Times Radio that masks work.
She said it was “really important that people follow the guidance that’s there at the time”, adding: “That’s what I will be doing, that’s what I’ll be advising our teams to do.
“The guidance does come from Government, but I think one of the things that we know is, masks work.
“So let’s see what the announcements are but certainly, if there is advice to keep wearing masks, I know I will and I’ll be encouraging others to do so as well.”
Meanwhile, Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B), which advises the Government, said he thought “in certain spaces, crowded, badly ventilated spaces, masks are crucial mitigation”.
Mask-wearing is primarily to stop transmission rather than acquisition, so it’s people that have got symptoms, who should really be staying at home, that are going to be the risk here, rather than the people walking around who are double-vaccinatedProfessor Calum Semple, Sage
Elsewhere, Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, told Sky News he may continue to wear a mask after July 19.
He said: “I probably will in some settings, but it’s got to be remembered that the mask-wearing is primarily to stop transmission rather than acquisition, so it’s people that have got symptoms, who should really be staying at home, that are going to be the risk here, rather than the people walking around who are double-vaccinated. They’re far less at risk.”
Prof Semple said the link between severe disease and hospital admission is “being broken from the cases in the community”, adding that people in hospital at the moment were mostly unvaccinated and were not critically ill.
On Monday, care minister Helen Whately said she expects the requirement for face masks in health and care settings to continue after July 19.