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Should you wear a face mask in public? The science says yes

14th April 2020

In a new piece published by Professor Trisha Greenhalgh OBE and Jeremy Howard, they’ve been exploring the benefits of mask wearing. And despite the so-far conflicting opinions of experts all over the world, the science points to the idea that everyone wearing masks could help to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Here’s why:

The way the virus is spread

COVID-19 is an illness caused by the coronavirus and like other similar diseases, it’s understood that it’s spread via infected droplets released during a cough or sneeze. These could be immediately inhaled by another person, or could land on surfaces to be later picked up.

We don’t know exactly how long the virus can live on surfaces for, so it makes sense to block the droplets at the source, rather than attempt to clean up after it as we go, so to speak. While hand sanitiser and disinfectant spray play an important role in health and hygiene surrounding this virus, a mask blocks large droplets from being able to escape at all.

The rate of transmission

There’s no denying that this virus is spreading quickly and there are a number of factors that contribute to this; the number of people an infected person comes into contact with, the number of viral particles released and the incubation period of the virus.

Social distancing is a really important method for lowering the first factor. Avoiding close contact with anyone outside of your household and only going out for the absolute essentials help you to come into contact with fewer people and thus lowers your risk of spreading/contracting the disease.

The second factor (the number of viral particles released) is one that can be improved by the use of widespread mask wearing. Respirator masks are graded on a system based on how protection they offer, with FFP2/N95 masks blocking 95%. A mask doesn’t need to block 100% of particles to significantly reduce the rate of transmission.

The incubation period of the virus is the third factor that contributes to its spread and this is where the mindset around mask wearing could be off-kilter. If every single person wears a face mask, the real protection is in the infected people wearing them, not the uninfected.

While a respirator mask will offer protection to those not currently infected with coronavirus, the real benefit is blocking infected particles from spreading from someone who has contracted the disease, but maybe doesn’t know it. 

COVID-19 has a 14 day incubation period where you could be spreading the virus but not having any symptoms from it, and even after that some people have such mild symptoms that they don’t notice.

If all of these people wore face masks (like an FFP2/N95 mask) then this would noticeably slow the spread of the virus.

The behavioural changes

Another key way in which masks can be effective at slowing the spread of coronavirus is that they can make people more aware of their behaviour. A common way that the virus is spread is when infected droplets land on surfaces and are then picked up by others. The virus can then make its way into the new person’s system when they touch their nose, mouth or eyes.

Wearing a face mask not only protects the user’s nose and mouth, but it can also encourage behavioural changes and remind you not to touch your face when out in public.

The cost

When looking at the value of mask wearing, you have to also consider the economic value. When you compare the cost of producing and purchasing the masks, versus the cost of treating the illness, it’s certainly beneficial.

You can purchase your own FFP2/N95 face mask from UK Meds, starting from £8.99 each, depending on the quantity purchased. These have an assigned protection factor of 10 and are available for next day delivery.

If you’d like to read the full piece by Professor Trisha Greenhalgh OBE and Jeremy Howard then you can view it here.