Use of face masks by general public perfectly reasonable, says GP leader

Wearing face masks or face coverings in public is “perfectly reasonable”, a GP leader has said as Government scientific advisers meet to decide whether they should be recommended.

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.

Woman in face mask
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies is discussing the use of face masks in the general population (PA)

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 says “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 health care workers, a position currently adopted in the UK.

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told BBC Breakfast no decision had yet been made on face masks, adding: “There’s no change at the moment.”

Mr Lewis was also grilled by ITV’s Good Morning Britain 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, 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.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has unveiled plans for contact tracing on a “large scale” as a way of slowing the spread of the virus.

Through increased widespread testing of the general population and isolating sick people and all their contacts, the hope is that localised outbreaks of coronavirus can be controlled.

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.

Meanwhile, backbench Tories have increased the pressure on the Government to scale back the lockdown over fears 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.

The treasurer of the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Conservatives, speaking in a personal capacity, told the Today programme: “We’ve got to think about the number of businesses, particularly small businesses, that unless they get some form of indication when they might be able to get back into business, that they are actually likely to cease trading.

“We have to, on behalf of the businesses of this country, begin to give them a little bit of hope as to when we might be able to get back to normality.”

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

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.

Some 18,100 patients have so far died in hospital after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK, as of 5pm on Tuesday, up by 763 from 17,337 the day before.

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