Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, face coverings and masks have become ubiquitous in some Asian countries, but the UK public has generally been more reluctant to adopt them. Now the law is about to change.
What are the new rules?
People will have to wear face coverings inside shops and supermarkets in England from 24 July, unless they have certain disabilities or are under the age of 11. They already have to do so while using public transport and in hospitals. Although store workers are not expected to enforce the rule, people who break it could face a fine of up to £100 if police get involved. This brings England more into line with restrictions in Scotland and many other European countries.
Weren’t face coverings supposed to not do much good?
At the start of the covid-19 pandemic, many scientists said there was not enough evidence to support their use. There were two big concerns: they could encourage people to take risks such as getting closer to others, and as masks still let in some virus, overall exposure could increase. There were also fears the public would buy medical-grade masks when hospitals were already going short.
What has changed?
UK prime minister Boris Johnson said earlier this week: “The scientific evidence of face coverings, and the importance of stopping aerosol droplets…that’s been growing.” His spokespeople have not clarified which studies he was referring to, but noted that the World Health Organization recently changed its advice on face coverings, saying new information showed they could provide “a barrier for potentially infectious droplets.”
We still don’t have the best kind of medical evidence: large randomised trials showing that people who cover their face are less likely to catch coronavirus than those who don’t. But other kinds of evidence have been emerging over the past few months. For instance, a study last month showed that in a coronavirus outbreak on a US aircraft carrier, those who wore face coverings had a lower chance of infection than others, at 56 per cent compared with 81 per cent. There is also clear evidence that face coverings stop people from spraying droplets into the air when talking. The UK’s Royal Society recently reviewed all the evidence and concluded face coverings are effective for protecting both the wearer and those around them from transmission in either direction, as long as the covering is of good quality.
What is a good quality face covering, and how should it be worn?
They should be fitted correctly, ideally looping around the ears or the back of the neck, and home-made cloth masks should be made from tightly woven fabrics, like cotton or denim. Multiple layers work best.
Why are shops being singled out for face coverings?
There’s no reason why shops should be more risky than other indoor spaces where people mix, like sports centres, churches or bars and restaurants. Face coverings are clearly impractical when people are eating and drinking, though. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said today that part of the reason for the new law is to “give people more confidence to shop safely”, which will help the economy. It will also help protect store workers, he said.
Are there any downsides to wearing face coverings?
People should make sure they don’t increase risky behaviours, such as gathering with others or spending time in closed spaces, and stick with proven tactics like frequent hand-washing and social distancing. Face coverings can also make it more difficult for those who are hard of hearing and people with learning disabilities to communicate.
Sign up to our free Health Check newsletter for a monthly round-up of all the health and fitness news you need to know
More on these topics: