Wearing face masks or face coverings in public is “perfectly reasonable”, a GP leader has said as England’s deputy chief medical officer admitted it was a “difficult issue”.
Ministers have so far rejected calls for face masks or face coverings to be used outside healthcare settings despite other countries, including the US and Germany, recommending them.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed its advice in light of evidence that a significant proportion of people with coronavirus lack symptoms and are able to spread the virus.
But studies have shown mixed results over whether masks offer any protection for healthy people, with concerns that they could lead to people touching their faces more, thereby increasing their risk of becoming infected with Covid-19.
The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is expected to discuss the issue at its regular Thursday meeting, with a decision from ministers expected soon.
Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s no research evidence to support wearing masks if you are basically fit and well; indeed, if people wear masks there’s a risk they play around with it, they play with their eyes more and maybe you’re even at a higher risk of picking up an infection.
“However, it is common sense that if they are coughing and spluttering then it makes complete sense to wear masks in order to protect other people.
“I think the guidance that we’re expecting to hear is that the wearing of face masks is a voluntary activity not mandated and it certainly makes a lot of sense to focus limited resources that we have at the moment on those who have greatest need and that’s the health professionals.
“This sophisticated kit is likely to be more rigorous, more useful, but actually it’s perfectly reasonable to wear a bandana around your mouth or whatever, that will work. It won’t be quite as good but it will be good enough.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says masks are useful in some settings, including when worn by those who are ill, but that “the wide use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not supported by current evidence”.
It says medical-grade face masks should be reserved for healthcare workers, a position currently adopted in the UK.
England’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, said the issue of whether members of the public should wear face masks was “difficult”.
Dr Harries told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that “the fact that there is a lot of debate means that the evidence either isn’t clear or is weak.
“The points where we are absolutely clear that face masks are needed are if you are a patient and are symptomatic -that’s stopping the infection at source from moving on to other people – and if you’re a healthcare worker and social care worker we must preserve our face masks particularly for them, to protect them.
“But when it comes to the general public it starts to get much more difficult.
“In some countries where the public are using them they are nearly always alongside other social distancing measures so it is quite difficult to tease out what the effect of the mask might be.”
Asked whether the public should be wearing them, Dr Harries said: “The number one thing is we must leave our medical masks, if you like, for those people that need them at the front line because there is clear evidence that that is beneficial.”
Dr Harries also revealed that she has suffered coronavirus, saying: “I found it a very unpleasant experience. I wasn’t well at all.”
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis was grilled by TV presenter Piers Morgan on the issue of Covid-19 testing and why health and care workers are not getting tests.
After coming under sustained pressure on Good Morning Britain, he said: “I’m agreeing with you, Piers. I think it’s dreadful that we can’t get more people tested.
“That’s why it’s important we do upscale the ability for people to access these tests, both with more test centres, the ability to have the tests at home, and the ability to apply for them directly rather than having to apply through their employer, which has been slowing things down.”
It comes after England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, told reporters on Thursday that the UK should prepare to endure some sort of restrictive measures for at least the rest of the year.
While the current UK lockdown is expected to be eased, ministers are working through a range of options to keep the rate of Covid-19 transmission under control.
Elsewhere in the UK:
– The Scottish Government is due to publish a paper on how Covid-19 restrictions may be eased.
– Dr Medhat Atalla, a consultant geriatrician at Doncaster Royal Infirmary in South Yorkshire, became the latest medic to die after contracting Covid-19.
– Professor John Newton told ITV’s Peston programme the Government is confident that only “if there are enough people who need testing” would it hit its 100,000-a-day target, set for next week.
– German Chancellor Angela Merkel has thrown her support behind the WHO after US President Donald Trump stopped its funding.
– UKHospitality warned that an extended period of social distancing measures could cost a million jobs in the sector.
Meanwhile, backbench Tories have increased the pressure on the Government to scale back the lockdown over fears that prolonged restrictions could sink the economy.
Senior Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown called on the Government to give businesses “hope” as to when some normality might be resumed.
Elsewhere, the Commons Health and Social Care Committee has launched a new inquiry into how the NHS delivers key services in the middle of a pandemic.
There has been growing concern over the number of heart attack and stroke victims failing to seek help, while thousands of cases of cancer and other diseases may go undetected.