Face Masks: Should We All Still Be Wearing One – And, If So, Where?

Here's the government advice on face masks – and what the experts recommend (spot the difference).
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Health secretary Sajid Javid has said there could be a reintroduction of Covid restrictions in England if “people don’t wear masks when they really should”.

In his first Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, he outlined the need for caution as Covid cases spike, advising that people should meet outdoor where possible, and wear masks in “really crowded” places and where they are “with lots of people that they don’t normally hang out with”.

Wearing a mask or face covering is not currently compulsory in England, though it is still mandated in most indoor public spaces in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Rules on wearing masks and coverings in England were lifted in July along with most other remaining lockdown restrictions. Since then, the number of people wearing masks has steadily decreased.

According to a survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the percentage of people in England, Scotland and Wales who said they had worn a face-covering outside their home in the past seven days dropped by 9% between July 28 and October 3.

While 95% of respondents over the age of 16 said they had worn a mask in the week before remaining social distancing restrictions were lifted, this had dropped to 86% by October.

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The ONS also found that older people were more likely to wear a mask. Among the over 70s, 93% of people thought wearing a mask was still important to slow the spread of Covid-19, where 78% of 16-29-year-olds thought the same.

The British Medical Association has accused the government of being “wilfully negligent” with various medical groups asking for masks to be worn again.

But ministers haven’t made any official changes to the guidance or rules.

Where are you still expected to wear a face mask?

The current official government advice on mask-wearing in England “enables personal risk-based judgments”, putting the onus on the individual to assess the situation and choose whether or not to wear one.

Echoing Sajid Javid’s words, the guidance in England says: “You are expected and recommended to continue wearing a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces where you come into contact with people you don’t usually meet. In particular, where the risk of transmission is likely to be greater.”

NHS England asks that patients, staff and visitors continue to wear face coverings and follow social distancing measures in healthcare settings.

Venues and businesses are allowed to enforce their own rules, including asking customers to wear one. Passengers on any forms of Transport for London transport can be refused entry if they are not wearing a mask without a reasonable excuse or exemption – though the rule is not heavily policed.

However, Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford, says we should still be wearing them and should have never stopped wearing them, because the pandemic hasn’t ended.

Prof Greenhalgh was an early advocate for masks before they were first advised by the government in May 2020, then made mandatory on public transport and in various indoor settings last summer.

“Masks dramatically reduce transmission, though they don’t stop it entirely,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“The effectiveness of masks depends on several things: the filtration properties, the fit (any gaps round the sides for example), and whether you’re actually wearing it all the time. So a high-filtration mask (N95 or FFP2), which fits snugly, and which you wear at all times when indoors, is the best option,” she adds.

Where should you prioritise wearing a face mask or covering?

Wearing a mask is designed primarily to protect others, though a recent study also re-confirmed that it reduces the risk of the wearer catching Covid, too. So where should mask-wearing be prioritised?

“Indoors, in crowded places, and where you have to be there for a prolonged period of time,” Prof Greenhalgh tells HuffPost UK. “The virus is airborne and is transmitted whenever you inhale air that an infected person has exhaled. Indoors, that exhaled air builds up and spreads around the room.”

Before the mask mandate was lifted in England, multiple experts said we should continue wearing coverings, but most agreed that some settings are more important and impactful than others – to protect yourself and others

When lockdown measures did actually lift on July 19, HuffPost UK spoke to some of those experts about where they still recommended mask-wearing.

“Outdoors, unless somebody infectious is shouting (or singing) in your face, transmission is negligible,” said Dr Peter English, past chair of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee. “Indoors it’s much more likely. The more crowded, and the less volume of air, the greater the risk.”

The priority indoor places experts talked us through are:

  • Supermarkets

  • Where people may be more vulnerable

  • Cinemas and theatres

  • Classrooms and offices

  • Public transport

  • Restaurants and pubs

  • Aeroplanes

Here is the full priority list, including expert comments on each.

What do the UK nations say about face coverings?

The governments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have each issued their own masking guidance – and explanations of why masks and face coverings can help in the fight against Covid. Here are their key points:

England: “Wearing a face covering can reduce the risk to others and yourself against the spread of infection because they cover the nose and mouth, which are the main confirmed sources of transmission of the virus that causes coronavirus infection.”

Scotland: “Wearing a face covering or mask helps keep you and others safe from Covid-19. You can still catch and pass on the virus even if you have been vaccinated, so wearing a face covering helps to reduce the spread.”

Wales: “Face coverings are largely intended to protect others, not the wearer, against the spread of infection because they cover the nose and mouth, which are the main confirmed sources of transmission of virus that causes coronavirus infection.”

Northern Ireland: “The best available scientific evidence is that, when used correctly, wearing a face covering may reduce the spread of coronavirus droplets in certain circumstances, helping to protect others.”