Debate over masks continues as academic says July 19 plans ‘make no sense’

It makes “no sense not to insist on the wearing of masks”, a leading academic has said.

Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, said people should be able to enjoy the summer after coronavirus restrictions are lifted but “it doesn’t mean we have to open the door wide open”.

His comments came as Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said he will “probably” wear a mask on the London Underground after the legal requirement ends.

And leading medics said masks may still be needed in hospitals, particularly in crowded environments such as A&E.

The legal requirement to wear face masks will be lifted in England on so-called Freedom Day – expected on July 19 – although guidance will suggest people might still choose to do so in crowded places.

Sir Paul told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it’s not unreasonable for the Government to open the country up more, given the successful vaccine rollout. But it’s not sensible to open up so much so fast when the level of infections is rising so quickly.

“This decision is informed by science but it’s a political decision. And some factors are important, like the economy, but some of this could be achieved by keeping some of the checks in place.

“It makes no sense not to insist on the wearing of masks. We need sensible, well thought-out, good plans.

“Of course we have to make the most of the summer but it doesn’t mean we have to open the door wide open.”

And Mr Kwarteng told Sky News: “Personally, I use the Tube a lot in London, and I would probably wear a mask in that context, on the Tube, on public transport.

“That’s a personal view, it’s not something I would mandate, or necessarily dictate to other people.”

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Meanwhile, Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said face masks may still be needed in A&E departments to “keep people safe”.

“So, we haven’t seen what the plans are for hospitals, but the likelihood is that we will want to make it as safe as possible for everybody,” she told Times Radio.

“And the only way to do that will be to maintain the hand hygiene, the social distancing and mask-wearing within a hospital.

“A&E departments are often quite crowded environments and that’s one of our worries – so, as people come in, we may need mask-wearing to help keep other people safe because you might be an asymptomatic carrier and come with a cut finger, but you might be near somebody who’s immunosuppressed with a kidney transplant.”

Professor Laurence Lovat, clinical director at the Weiss Centre at UCL, questioned whether it is “wise” to make face masks optional.

He told Sky News: “There is no doubt that face masks have an enormous impact on the transmission of droplets – these tiny aerosols that sort of float around in the air.

“And one thing we really don’t want to be doing is to have a major spike of patients coming into hospitals again just as hospitals are starting to settle down and get back to routine work.

“And face masks are a really simple way to prevent people from transmitting disease to others.”

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Meanwhile, Professor Sir John Bell said there is no need to “wobble” on plans to ease coronavirus restrictions, and suggested that immunity from vaccinations could be increasing over time.

The regius professor of medicine at Oxford University said he is encouraged by evidence that vaccines are “holding their own” by reducing the likelihood of hospital admission and death to “very small indeed” after both doses.

“That’s what the Government is counting on and I see no reason to wobble on that,” he told the Today programme.

“The second thing is, our immune responses seem to get better over time. After you’ve had two vaccines, when you pop back up six months later, your immune system has developed the response to the virus to an even more mature state.

“So, I think, not only have we got good immunity but that immunity may well improve over time. As you know, I’m a sort of glass half-full guy and I’m sort of three-quarters full at the moment.”