Experts appear divided on whether people in England should be asked to continue to wear facemasks after July 19.
The Government is thought to be preparing to announce that face coverings will become voluntary in many or all settings once so-called freedom day arrives later this month.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said he thought lifting facemask restrictions was fine, though people who are vulnerable may wish to take extra care.
He said Covid “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 facemask-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 voluntaryProf Robert Dingwall, Nottingham Trent University
“In my opinion it is a positive step to make mask-wearing voluntary.”
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.”
Asked whether this was offering contradictory advice, she said: “The decision is for Government in terms of the final guidance but that’s certainly where we focus, and that’s what’s been an important part of the way that we’ve worked, having our masks on, and making sure our communities are wearing their masks as much as possible, and that’s what’s keeping us safe and well.”
Meanwhile, Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B) which advises the Government, called for “support and proportionate mitigations to keep us safe” from coronavirus.
Asked if he was more concerned about the Government’s messaging around the pandemic or the requirement to wear facemasks potentially being dropped, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think both.
“I think we need very clear messaging and I think 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 facemasks in health and care settings to continue after July 19.
“I’ll be looking at the guidance, I’ll be making a judgment, but I’m not keen to wear one when I don’t need one – personally, it’s not something I enjoy doing,” she told Times Radio.
“But I’m also really aware that there will be circumstances, I’m expecting to continue in health and social care clearly, where people will need to continue to wear PPE (personal protective equipment), which includes masks.”
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick and Chancellor Rishi Sunak have both said they plan to stop wearing masks when it is no longer legally required.