Coronavirus: facemasks ‘as crucial as handwashing and distancing’

This article first appeared in the Times

Not wearing one should be seen as antisocial, says top scientist

No one should leave home without a facemask and wearing one should be considered as crucial as handwashing and social distancing, according to the president of Britain’s leading scientific body.

Venki Ramakrishnan, who heads the Royal Society and holds a Nobel prize in chemistry, made the comments as he released a report showing that despite the growing evidence masks slow virus transmission, the UK is among the worst for wearing them.

“The UK is way behind many countries in terms of wearing masks and clear policies and guidelines about mask wearing for the public,” he said.

Figures show that by the end of April only a quarter of Britons had worn masks, compared with about two thirds in the US.

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“The public have taken to handwashing and distancing but remain sceptical about face coverings. You only need to go on public transport, where they are supposed to be mandatory, to see how many people are ignoring this new rule based on the growing body of evidence that wearing a mask will help protect others – and might even protect you.”

The Royal Society has formed its own scientific advisory group to assess the evidence on pandemics. It includes Nobel laureates, a Fields medallist and researchers from across virology, public health and behavioural science. Its assessment on facemasks is its first big report, and comes as Scotland mandates their use in shops as well as public transport.

While the wider scientific community in Britain was sceptical about their effectiveness early in the pandemic, the committee, known as Delve, believed that the weight of evidence was in their favour. Given that many people may be infected without knowing, the report concluded that even simple cloth masks probably have value in preventing them passing on the disease inadvertently through droplets, and may also provide protection for wearers too.

Professor Ramakrishnan said that, as in other countries, this meant it was now time to normalise the use of masks. “It used to be quite normal to have quite a few drinks and drive home, and it also used to be normal to drive without seatbelts,” he said. “Today both of those would be considered antisocial, and not wearing face coverings in public should be regarded in the same way.”

While we may not need one if outside, he said we should get used to carrying one to put on when we go into shops or other buildings.

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“If all of us wear one, we protect each other and thereby ourselves, reducing transmission. We lower the chances of future surges and lockdowns which are economically and psychologically disruptive, and we increase the chance of eliminating the virus. Not doing so increases the risk for everyone, from NHS workers to your grandmother.”

The utility of facemasks has split the scientific community, with many arguing they may even be harmful — by giving people a false sense of security. One of the concerns of mask-sceptics has been that there are few high-quality trials, known as randomised control trials, investigating their use. In the report, the Royal Society’s team acknowledged that but said: “We note that there have also been no clinical trials of coughing into your elbow, social distancing and quarantine, yet these measures have been widely adopted and are considered as effective.”

KK Cheng, from the University of Birmingham, has been one of those advocating masks since the beginning of the pandemic. He said the report should be a wake-up call for Britain to take them more seriously, in the same way they have been in Asia.

“Of course, 100 plus countries, numerous Nobel laureates and the Royal Society may all be wrong. But if they were, the penalty will be small. But if those who keep questioning the role of masks are wrong, the damage they do is much bigger, including damaged economy, overwhelmed health services and lives.”

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