Wearing face masks outdoors could prevent COVID spreading in busy shopping streets, say scientists

Shoppers walk wearing face masks and carrying shopping bags in Regent Street, after coronavirus restrictions were eased following the end of the second national lockdown in England, in London, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
There have been calls to make face masks compulsory in busy London shopping streets. (AP)

Scientists have claimed that wearing face masks in busy shopping streets could help halt the spread of coronavirus, it has been reported.

Two experts from the University of Oxford told The Times that making masks outdoors mandatory in London’s shopping streets could have a positive impact on the rate of COVID-19 cases.

On Monday, London mayor Sadiq Khan wrote to the government asking face masks in public places to be made mandatory in the capital, after thousands of people flocked to busy shopping areas such as Regent Street at the weekend.

Hours later, health secretary Matt Hancock announced that London would be placed in England’s highest level of restrictions, Tier 3, from Wednesday, following a spike in coronavirus cases.

Watch: Matt Hancock announces areas entering Tier 3

In England, people must wear a face mask on public transport, in taxis, shops and supermarkets, estate agents, theatres, hairdressers, churches and other indoor settings, but not outdoors, according to government guidelines.

However, the images of packed shopping streets ahead of Christmas has led to some scientists suggesting masks in public places should be required.

How weekly coronavirus cases have increased in London. (PA)
How weekly coronavirus cases have increased in London. (PA)
Crowds of shoppers walk under the Christmas lights in Regent Street, in London, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. Health Secretary Matt Hancock says infections are starting to rise in some areas after falling during a four-week national lockdown in England that ended Dec. 2. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Thousands of people flocked to Regent Street in London for Christmas shopping at the weekend. (AP)

Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford, told The Times: “In addition to ‘shared air’ (mostly an indoor risk), there’s also the problem of being caught in the direct jet of an exhaled gas cloud when someone coughs, speaks, sneezes or just breathes out.

“If you’re close enough to feel their warm breath on you or smell their halitosis you probably need a mask even outdoors.”

Melinda Mills, professor of sociology at the University of Oxford, told the newspaper: “When we looked at the data in June, there were 71 countries who required everyone in public to be masked.

“It was a minority of countries that chose specific complicated policies. It’s aerosol, it’s transmitted in air, this is good to do.”

KK Cheng, professor of public health and primary care at the University of Birmingham, said: “At this time of the year and in places such as busy shopping areas of London or other large cities, especially in places where the levels of transmission are rising, mask wearing in outdoor areas is a worthwhile measure when shoppers literally rub shoulders with each other.”

In October, a behaviour changes tracker run by YouGov revealed the European countries where people wear face masks the most.

Spain topped the chart with 89% of people there wearing masks in public, followed by Italy on 88%, France on 77% and the UK on 76%.

Italy made face masks in public mandatory at the beginning of October, while they are also compulsory in outdoor settings in parts of France and Spain.

On Monday, Khan said: “Face coverings should also be made mandatory in busy outdoor public spaces, given the numbers on our high streets in the run-up to Christmas.”

Two months ago, the British Medical Association (BMA) called for face masks to be made compulsory while outside.

But other scientists are more hesitant about making masks mandatory outdoors.

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: “Personally, I don’t think it necessary to wear face masks in the street and it may even be counterproductive.

“Masks do have some value but they are not a guarantee of protection and are not an alternative to social distancing.”

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Dr Ashley Luckman, a behavioural scientist at Warwick Business School, said: “Wearing masks brings down the overall risk of spreading COVID-19, so people feel safer and are more willing to take other risks, such as decreasing the physical distance between them and others.”

“Clearly, the greatest benefit results from using masks to complement social distancing, rather than replacing it.”

Dr Flavio Toxvaerd, an economics lecturer at the University of Cambridge, said: “While masks may reduce transmission from person to person, it may also influence people’s movements and contact patterns and make people less cautious.”

Watch: How to wear a face covering comfortably