When Will We Be Able To Stop Wearing Face Masks?

Masks may be needed until we reach herd immunity, say experts. When will that be?

Every Monday we’ll answer your questions on Covid-19 and health in a feature published online. You can submit a question here.

This week, HuffPost UK reader Alison asked: “When will face masks be a thing of the past?”

Wearing a face mask in shops, hair salons, as we enter the pub or on public transport has become second nature for many of us in recent months. But with Covid-19 cases rising in the UK, some experts believe we should be wearing them even more frequently.

Dr Jenna Macciochi, an immunologist based at the University of Sussex, previously told HuffPost UK those living in tier 1 areas may even want to consider wearing masks when visiting a loved one’s home (indoor visits are completely banned in tier 2 and 3 already).

It begs the question: will we ever stop wearing face masks? Or should we accept they’re part of life from now on? Sadly, none of us have a crystal ball with the answer, but we asked experts for their best predictions.

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Arpana Verma, a professor of public health and epidemiology at the University of Manchester, says she can imagine a time where face masks are no longer needed – but it’s hard to put a timescale on it.

“I would hope we return to a time when circulating coronavirus levels are wiped out,” she tells HuffPost UK. “But, like with some cultures where they have repeated coronavirus outbreaks, mask-wearing for some is the norm.”

Dr Julian Tang, a consultant virologist and professor in the Department of Respiratory Sciences at University of Leicester, agrees masks won’t be here forever, but it’s likely to be a long haul.

“Just like with the 2009 pandemic flu virus, I think SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes Covid-19] will gradually become more human-adapted,” he explains. “So more transmissible, less lethal, which will increase our overall herd immunity slowly. This may reduce the need for masks, except in specific elderly/vulnerable groups.”

Herd immunity is a when a large percentage of the population has developed immunity to a virus, making it harder for the virus to spread. SARS-CoV-2 mutates more slowly than flu, adds Dr Tang, so the road to herd immunity is likely to be longer.

“Of course, if an effective SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is found and widely used, this will increase overall herd immunity much more quickly to limit the spread of the virus further,” he says.

There’s been much discussion on when a vaccine will become available and whether life will “get back to normal” by Christmas. Prof. Verma thinks the timescale for vaccines – and a possible end to face masks – will be much longer. “I think spring 2021 will be a time of hope when we have much more evidence and effective [solutions],” she says.

But even with a vaccine, Dr Tang warns that herd immunity could take a long time to establish.

“Looking at the increasing rate of SARS-CoV-2 spread globally through susceptible populations – some with sporadic interventions of variable effectiveness – without a vaccine, it might take five to 10 years to reach a level of naturally acquired herd immunity,” he says.

“With an effective and widely accessible vaccine – again, depending on how quickly this can be distributed and administered within specific populations, in conjunction with the evolution of the virus to a more transmissible, less lethal form, and naturally acquired immunity – perhaps three to five years.”

One challenge is that scientists still don’t know for certain how long immunity lasts, whether it’s acquired naturally or via a vaccine.

“Ironically, the more effective the infection control interventions (masking, social distancing, lockdown, etc.), the longer they may have to stay in place, as they will also reduce the rate of acquisition of herd immunity,” adds Dr Tang.

So, are we doomed to wear masks for the next decade? No necessarily, Dr Tang adds. Governments may decide to implement a “masks on, masks off” approach, by reacting to local virus levels. This would at least limit the environmental waste generated by masks.

“Some countries like New Zealand have very few cases of Covid-19 per million people, so you could argue that masks are not needed below a certain Covid-19 threshold incidence/prevalence rate,” he says.

“But you will need a very efficient, effective, coordinated and rapid testing/reporting system to keep these incidences updated and accurate, to decide when universal masking is needed again.”

Such a programme wouldn’t be “easy or cheap to set up or maintain”, he says, and would require regular testing within the community – not just those coming to hospital.

In short: you won’t be able to ditch your mask anytime soon. Our best hope lies in an effective vaccine, boosted by an efficient track and trace system. For now, invest in a comfy, reusable mask that impacts your life – and the environment – as little as possible.

Experts are still learning about Covid-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but guidance could change as scientists discover more about the virus. To keep up to date with health advice and cases in your area, visit gov.uk/coronavirus and nhs.uk.