Face masks may need to be worn in schools, workplaces and crowded outdoor spaces to protect people against the new Covid strain, scientists have told the government.
Documents show members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advised on December 23 that the uncertainty surrounding increased transmission of the new variant meant tougher measures were likely to be needed.
Millions more people are living under tier 4 restrictions as of Thursday due to soaring infections and Boris Johnson said the mutant strain, first identified in the south-east of England, was responsible for 60% of all new cases.
“It may be necessary to extend the use of face coverings to a wider number of settings (e.g. workplaces and education) where they are not currently mandated,” a meeting report states.
“This is important even when people are more than two metres apart, as correctly worn face coverings also reduce the emission rate of small aerosols.”
The government does not currently recommend face coverings in education settings, though secondary schools and colleges can ask students and staff to wear them where social distancing isn’t possible. Primary school heads can also ask staff and visitors to wear masks in the same situation, though guidance states primary school pupils don’t need to wear them in any circumstance.
As for workplaces, government advice states social distancing, high standards of hygiene and screens are the best way to minimise the risk of transmission, though in some circumstances masks may be “marginally beneficial” to protect other people.
The scientists also recommended that the two-metre social distancing rule should be restored as the default measure, rather than one-metre-plus.
And the report adds it is “likely to be necessary” for the government to also “reinforc[e] the importance of using face coverings, including in settings where they are not currently mandated, such as education, workplaces, and crowded outdoor spaces”.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “It is mandatory for face coverings to be worn on public transport and in a range of indoor public settings where social distancing may be difficult and where people come into contact with others they do not normally meet.
“We are guided by the advice of our scientific and medical experts and keep the evidence on face coverings under constant review.”