Grabbing your face mask before leaving the house has become as habitual as checking you’ve got your keys. But that could be set to change as we progress through the government’s step-by-step roadmap out of lockdown.
When asked if we’ll still need to wear face masks indoors after June 21 – the hopeful end of all social restrictions – England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries said it may be possible to ditch them over summer.
“One of the things we know, of course, is doing things outside is ever so much safer than doing things inside – ventilation, we know, is really important,” Dr Harries said during Wednesday’s Downing Street Briefing.
“As we get into the autumn, when winter comes in and we spend more time inside, then again we may be looking at it. But it’s quite possible over summer months, as we did last year when we see rates drop, that we would not need to be wearing masks all that time.”
Summer is generally “a much safer period for us”, she said, with less need for interventions – but “that doesn’t rule it out as we go into winter periods again”.
Dr Harries’ comments follow similar conclusions made by Anthony Fauci, one of America’s top medical advisers, plus England’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. Anthony Fauci said it was “possible” Americans would still be wearing masks into 2022. Professor Vallance agreed.
“Tony Fauci yesterday said in the US he thought that things like masks may be needed next winter,” Prof. Vallance said on Tuesday.
“I think we’re in the same position, that it may be necessary next winter to have things like mask-wearing in certain situations.”
Despite the optimism of others, Dr Julian Tang, a consultant virologist and expert in respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester, warns against ditching face masks in summer. “Wearing face masks reduces the risk of exposure and therefore infection from inhaled airborne virus,” he says.
“With the progressive Covid-19 vaccine roll-out, the chance of virus exposure in the population will gradually decrease, but not everyone will take the vaccine and the vaccines are not 100% effective in reducing transmission – especially with new variants circulating that can partially escape the effect of vaccines.”
Wearing masks throughout the vaccination process – even in summer – will help protect people from exposure to the virus, he says, particularly from those in the working age group (18-55 years) and children (under 18s) who haven’t yet been vaccinated.
Although risk of hospitalisation is lower in these groups, Dr Tang warns we shouldn’t forget about long Covid complications, which are thought to impact up to 10% of those who become infected – even with asymptomatic or mild initial symptoms.
“These long-term complications can be severely debilitating: fatigue, breathlessness, headache, memory loss, mental health issues,” he says.
“So even through this adult vaccination period, which is likely to last until July/August, I would really urge people to continue masking, particularly in indoor crowded areas like supermarkets – especially the younger working population who have yet to be vaccinated, or those who need to keep working to support their young families, and cannot afford to suffer from any long Covid complications at this time.”