Scientist challenges Health Secretary Matt Hancock on face masks

A prominent scientist has taken Health Minister Matt Hancock to task for casting doubt on the effectiveness of face masks to fight the spread of coronavirus.

Mr Hancock told ITV's Peston programme on Wednesday night it was important the Government made the right decisions on the supply and use of face masks amid continuing high demand for them, saying "if they don't help, then it doesn't improve the national effort to tackle this virus".

But Mr Hancock's comments were disputed by University of San Francisco data scientist Jeremy Howard, who recently led a review panel with 18 other experts from around the globe on the effectiveness of masks in warding off the virus.

Mr Howard said the evidence "does not at all show what he (Mr Hancock) claimed" on whether masks were vital.

"It actually looks a lot like this could be one of our most important tools," Mr Howard told the programme.

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Pictures of the week: April 12 - 18
A stall holder in a protective face mask in Brixton Market in South London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The government's message: 'Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives' is shown in lights on the rotating display near the top of the BT Tower in the Fitzrovia area of London as the UK continues in lockdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
The scene in Cleethorpes as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Visitors to Greenwich Park in south east London take their daily exercise and photograph the cherry blossom in the Royal Park as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday April 16, 2020. See PA story HEALTH Coronavirus. Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
A woman in a protective face mask walks through Brixton Market in South London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A woman walks past NHS tributes which are painted on pillow cases attached to the fence at Elder Park in Glasgow as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A woman runs alone on Worthing beach in front of Worthing Pier to get her daily exercise and obey social distancing instructions as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A person walks past a boarded up Debenhams, Oxford Street, London as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A large display thanking the NHS at Wandsworth roundabout as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A temporary morgue on Wanstead Flats in East London as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A man plays football in front of graffiti reading Stop 5G Paranoia on Wanstead Flats in East London as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A view along Oxford Street, London, looking from Oxford Circus towards Centrepoint, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Head falconer Chris O'Donnell with a White-tailed Sea Eagle at Warwick Castle, Warwick, home to the UK's biggest birds of prey show. The castle's birds are unable to give their regular displays as the UK continues in lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
A Virgin Atlantic charter flight lands at Heathrow Airport, London, delivering vital medical supplies to UK from Shanghai. Itis one of eight cargo-only flights, in partnership with the Department of Health and the NHS, that Virgin Atlantic is operating during April.
Mounted police officers speak to people on Primrose Hill, London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A Virgin Atlantic charter flight lands at Heathrow Airport, London, delivering vital medical supplies to UK from Shanghai. Itis one of eight cargo-only flights, in partnership with the Department of Health and the NHS, that Virgin Atlantic is operating during April.
Hand painted pictures of colourful rainbows are displayed on the door of a home in South London as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
People wearing protective masks whilst shopping in South London as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Colourful signs in a shop window say 'stay home', 'protect the NHS' and 'save lives' as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A man walks past a 'we are closed' sign at Crabshack in Worthing as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Bobby (no surname given) feeding a peanut to a squirrel in St James's Park, London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A boy on his BMX rides up a ramp as he gets his daily exercise in a skatepark while the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Police monitor people on the Long Walk in Windsor, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Two people practice social distancing while talking to each other sitting on benches in Clevedon on Easter Bank Holiday Monday at midday, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A deserted M5 motorway near Clevedon on Easter Bank Holiday Monday at midday, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
EDITORS NOTE: NUMBER PLATES PIXELATED BY PA PICTURE DESK Picture taken at 08:50 at a drive-in Covid-19 testing centre at Leeds Temple Green Park and Ride, part of the Government's UK-wide drive to increase testing for thousands more NHS workers.
Members of the public in the Meadows in Edinburgh as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Cones and beach detritus block the entrance to a car parking section of beach around midday on Easter Sunday at Weston-super-Mare as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A woman prays at the closed doors of Westminster Cathedral ahead of the Easter morning mass, London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. Churches across the country have been continuing to broadcast services digitally in the lead-up to Easter, with more than 1,000 livestreams taking place on a regular basis.
A woman prays at the closed doors of Westminster Cathedral ahead of the Easter morning mass, London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. Churches across the country have been continuing to broadcast services digitally in the lead-up to Easter, with more than 1,000 livestreams taking place on a regular basis.
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Mr Howard cited World Health Organisation assistant director-general David Heymann's comment that masks were equally or more effective in combating the spread of Covid-19 than social distancing, and said the situation in Taiwan provided further proof.

"Regardless of how you look at it, it looks like there's an extra 1,500 deaths a week (in the UK) due to this disease. The entire country of Taiwan has five deaths. Now here's an example of a great country that is distributing masks to everybody," Mr Howard said.

Earlier this week, Mr Howard tweeted: "Most scientific evidence points in the same direction: keep your droplets to yourself – wear a mask."

"Our team's review of the literature found substantial evidence in favour of widespread mask use to reduce community transmission, based on droplet dynamics, mask material analysis, efficacy studies, and behavioural studies," he tweeted.

"The key insight is that most discussions assume that the purpose of the mask is to protect the wearer, since this is what all doctors learn about in medical school. But actually masks work far better at blocking the infection at the source. This is called 'source control'."

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