There is an “urgent need” for Britons to wear cloth face coverings in public places to fight the spread of coronavirus, a group of health experts has warned.
In an open letter to the government, more than 20 public health specialists and academics said the measure would be one of the “simplest, cheapest and most positive” ways to protect people from COVID-19.
It comes after Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer backed calls for the government to formally recommend people wear face masks on transport and in workplaces where social distancing is difficult.
London mayor Sadiq Khan had previously said he wants the wearing of face masks on public transport in the capital to be made compulsory.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the government’s scientific advisers are finalising their advice on face masks to give to ministers shortly.
The open letter to the government has been signed by the likes of Andrew Phillips, professor of epidemiology at University College London, Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Paul Roderick, professor of public health at the University of Southampton.
The experts warn there is “an urgent need to ensure the general population use cloth face coverings in public places”, particularly in supermarkets and public transport, “as an additional tool to reduce community transmission” of the virus.
They urge the government to recommend the use of cloth face coverings so that public demand does not “compete with the needs of health and care workers for protective equipment”.
“Wearing face coverings (regularly washed with hot soapy water) in public is likely to be one of the simplest, cheapest and most positive measures in protecting people from infection,” the letter states.
The experts say they recognise the effectiveness of wearing a face covering is a “contested issue”, and that the World Health Organisation does not currently recommend wearing face masks outside of clinical settings in relation to COVID-19.
But they add that several countries have “enforced or strongly recommended” the public wearing of face masks, including mainland China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, the Czech Republic, Singapore and parts of Germany.
Coronavirus is transmitted by large droplets “which can be prevented by social distancing and hand hygiene and by face covering”, the letter says.
Transmission is also possible from smaller droplets shed during normal speech which can remain in the air for several hours so wearing face coverings may reduce this risk, it adds.
“Public face covering will be most effective at stopping spread of the virus when compliance is high,” the experts say.
“With appropriate guidance, the public will quickly learn how to properly use face coverings whilst maintaining other control measures.”
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Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News last week that wearing masks to avoid spreading COVID-19 might have some advantages.
But he explained the policy was under review by the government’s chief science advisers and cautioned that face coverings may even be “disadvantageous” if worn wrongly.