face mask use in public covid-19

How wearing face masks may help reduce spread of Covid-19

Why face masks are crucial in the fight against Covid 19

No one would dispute that the wearing of face masks and PPE by doctors, nurses and medical staff when treating patients with Covid-19 reduces the risk of the infection spreading. 


Face mask use by public covid-19

Should the general public be advised to wear face masks in public

Current advice form the UK government and the WHO is that the wearing of face masks by the general public will not reduce the spread of Corona virus Covid-19 but is this information correct.

Anecdotal evidence suggest that the use of face masks by the general public  may in fact reduce the spread of Covid-19 , and this may be one of the reasons that China has managed to reduce its infection rate and death rate so dramatically. Widespread face mask use by the public in Chinese cities was common even before Covid-19 due to air pollution and previous infections such as SARS and bird flu.

Other countries are recommending face masks for use by general public

Face masks are being widely used by the public in China and South Korea and some areas of China have compulsory face mask use policies in place in public places.

The USA has this week recommended that its citizens wear face masks or coverings over their faces when out in public and people in Spanish cities have been provided with face masks when entering some Spanish supermarkets to shop. Should we be giving the same advice.

Have there been any studies on the use of face masks in public

  • A team at the university of East Anglia medical school recently reviewed the current information on the use of face masks in preventing the spread of similar flu like illnesses to Covid-19 in the past.
  • They found that the use of face masks did slightly reduce the risk of an individual contracting illness when out in public.
  • They also identified that there may be a place for the use of face masks by the public for example where a family member has the infection it can reduce the spread of the virus within the household by around 19%.
  • They also found that it may be beneficial to elderly or vulnerable individuals to wear them when out in public for example for shopping, visiting doctor or hospital, using public transport.

How does wearing a face masks reduce transmission of respiratory infection like Covid-19

  1. If an infected person wears a face mask when they cough or sneeze the mask catches the droplet spray containing the virus reducing the chance of infecting other people
  2. Wearing a face mask stops an individual touching their mouth or nose although it does not stop them touching their eyes
  3. Wearing a face mask may reduce the chance of them inhaling droplets from an infected person in the air who has coughed or sneezed or is speaking to them.
  4. Wearing of face masks may encourage social distancing further as it is a reminder to people to keep apart

Interesting number one is probably the most important benefit

Are there any disadvantages to the widespread use of face masks

  • Widespread use of face masks would put increased pressure on the already over stretched NHS supply chain for PPE
  • Availability is currently an issue with many UK face mask suppliers having sold out
  • Face masks would need to be disposed of correctly to prevent transmitting infection
  • It may make social distancing less effective as individuals may rely too heavily on the face masks to protect them
  • It may lead to a false sense of security in the individual wearing the mask and reduce other hygiene methods such as hand washing
  • Face masks can be uncomfortable to wear and may cause skin reactions
  • Cost is an issue
  • Manufacturers have put prices up on face masks because of the huge demand and the recent problems with the supply chain
  • Air freight costs have gone up enormously over the last 4 weeks due to the current Corona virus Crisis which makes getting face masks into the UK more expensive and slow.


In the current situation we need to ensure that we have sufficient supplies of face masks to protect frontline NHS staff, which has been challenging.

However this should change over the coming weeks with medical suppliers and the NHS restocking,  and this may mean that the current government advice will change on the use of face masks by the public.

I think it is likely that we will in the not to distant future see the widespread use of face masks in the UK by everyone in crowded public places, particularly in cities, when people are shopping, visiting hospital, chemist or GP or travelling on public transport and that this may actually reduce community transmission rates of Covid-19. 

References and further reading

  1. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine 20th March 2020


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