News, Culture & Society

Health Secretary Matt Hancock admits he ‘can’t promise’ all Britons will be given free face masks

In the House of Commons today, Mr Hancock admitted he ‘can’t promise’ all Britons would receive a free face mask if they became mandatory

Health Secretary Matt Hancock today admitted he ‘can’t promise’ all Britons will receive a free face mask if they become mandatory.

In the House of Commons, Mr Hancock warned it was vital to ensure the limited supplies of PPE are prioritised for NHS and care home workers on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis.

He said that Number 10 would ‘follow the advice’ and listen to its top advisers, who are reviewing whether masks are effective at shielding people from the virus.  

Ministers have repeatedly insisted throughout the course of the crisis that there was no evidence they helped curb infection rates.

But they are thought to be gearing up to U-turn on their stance after watching most countries around the world make them compulsory.

Germany, Italy and Spain – which were previously against mask-wearing – now say they must be worn used in shops and on public transport.  

The US has went one step further, telling Americans that if they can’t access a mask they should use a scarf or face cloth to cover their face for protection. 

But the World Health Organization (WHO) maintains there is little evidence that anything less than medical-standard masks are effective for mass-use.

Number 10’s top scientific advisers are said to have changed their tune, with many of them now believing that some protection is better than none at all. 

However, health bosses have been urged to hold-off on announcing a U-turn until they can be certain it will not lead to shortages for frontline NHS workers. 

Two people wear masks while walking through Clapham Common in South London on Sunday

Two people wear masks while walking through Clapham Common in South London on Sunday 

Home-made face masks could slow down the spread of the killer coronavirus in the UK, top scientists advising Number 10 believe. American are recommended to use homemade masks by the the US Centers for Disease Control. Pictured, a boy wearing a cloth mask in New York

Home-made face masks could slow down the spread of the killer coronavirus in the UK, top scientists advising Number 10 believe. American are recommended to use homemade masks by the the US Centers for Disease Control. Pictured, a boy wearing a cloth mask in New York

INDUSTRY CANNOT SUPPLY FACE MASKS TO MILLIONS OF BRITS

The UK does not have enough materials to make masks for the public, industry experts have warned.

As ministers weigh up whether to change their advice for 66.6million Britons, senior industry figures say it could stretch supply chains too thin.

Stephen Phipson, chief executive of Make UK, the trade organisation for the manufacturing industry, told the Financial Times: ‘Currently, the UK doesn’t have scale and access to key materials to make face masks in the quantity being talked about, unlike the Asian market which has a huge capacity and a low cost base as does Turkey.’

The most common masks are made from polypropylene fibres, a material that suppliers say is imported from other countries. 

It would not be possible to suddenly start manufacturing masks in the UK, Mr Phipson said, but in the long-term, it may be a good idea to look into building factories so the reliance on overseas supply is reduced. 

Sam Gompels, owner of Gompels HealthCare, a PPE distributor, said there was ‘absolutely no way’ the market would cope with the demands of three to four masks per person, per day. Already the industry is on its knees trying to cope with ‘unlimited’ demands from the health and social sector.  

Mr Hancock told the Commons today: ‘We’ll follow the advice, we’ll listen to what the Sage advisory group says on masks and then we will implement that.

‘I can’t promise we will give everybody free masks, that would be an extraordinary undertaking.

‘And we do have to make sure we have supplies available especially for health and social care staff.’

Mr Hancock added that the scientific advice has always been that wearing masks is necessary ‘in those circumstances’. 

He was responding to a question from Labour MP Hilary Benn, who asked if Britons would have to source their own masks if required to wear them.

Mr Benn said: ‘It seems increasingly likely that part of what will be required to tackle this virus in future will be the wearing of masks by members of the public.’

He asked, if they were to be introduced, what Number 10’s plan was to source them, ‘given the difficulties we have seen with PPE supply’.

Doctors and nurses are vulnerable to the virus because they are repeatedly exposed to higher doses of the bug than the general public.

Research on how well various types of masks and face coverings varies, but, in light of the pandemic, experts are increasingly leaning toward the notion that something is better than nothing.

A review of scientific literature by the University of East Anglia found the masks have a ‘small protective effect’ that could shield elderly and vulnerable people from contracting the virus in crowded places. 

The researchers advise they people wear one on public transport, at the supermarket or in hospitals.

But they say the evidence is not strong enough to recommend widespread use of masks in the general population.  

A University of Oxford study published on March 30 concluded that surgical masks are just as effective at preventing respiratory infections as N95 masks for doctors, nurses and other health care workers.

It’s too early for their to be reliable data on how well they prevent infection with COVID-19, but the study found the thinner, cheaper masks do work in flu outbreaks. 

Droplets of saliva and mucous from coughs and sneezes are very small, and viral particles themselves are particularly tiny – in fact, they’re about 20-times smaller than bacteria.

For this reason, a JAMA study published this month still contended that people without symptoms should not wear surgical masks, because there is not proof the gear will protect them from infection – although they may keep people who are coughing and sneezing from infecting others.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam told the Downing Street press conference yesterday that government scientists were ready to change advice if the evidence supported it

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam told the Downing Street press conference yesterday that government scientists were ready to change advice if the evidence supported it

How to make your own coronavirus mask: Scientists are encouraging people to make their own facemasks from T-shirts, sanitary towels or vacuum cleaner bags - with methods shown here

How to make your own coronavirus mask: Scientists are encouraging people to make their own facemasks from T-shirts, sanitary towels or vacuum cleaner bags – with methods shown here

Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam last night said ministers were ready to change advice to the public on masks if the evidence supported it.

But he dropped a heavy hint that there would be no change in policy until supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) to the NHS front line had improved.

Industry bosses have echoed the fears, saying the UK would not have enough supply if Number 10 advised surgical masks for the public. 

Stephen Phipson, chief executive of Make UK – which represents manufacturers, told the Financial Times that Britain should.

He said: ‘Currently, the UK doesn’t have scale and access to key materials to make face masks in the quantity being talked about.’

THE TRUTH ABOUT FACE MASKS: WHAT STUDIES HAVE SHOWN 

Research on how well various types of masks and face coverings varies but, recently, and in light of the pandemic of COVID-19, experts are increasingly leaning toward the notion that something is better than nothing.

A review of scientific literature by the University of East Anglia found the masks have a ‘small protective effect’ that could shield elderly and vulnerable people from contracting the virus in crowded places. 

The researchers advise they people wear one on public transport, at the supermarket or in hospitals.

But they say the evidence is not strong enough to recommend widespread use of masks in the general population.  

A University of Oxford study published on March 30 concluded that surgical masks are just as effective at preventing respiratory infections as N95 masks for doctors, nurses and other health care workers.

It’s too early for their to be reliable data on how well they prevent infection with COVID-19, but the study found the thinner, cheaper masks do work in flu outbreaks.

The difference between surgical or face masks and N95 masks lies in the size of particles that can – and more importantly, can’t – get though the materials.

N95 respirators are made of thick, tightly woven and molded material that fits tightly over the face and can stop 95 percent of all airborne particles, while surgical masks are thinner, fit more loosely, and more porous.

This makes surgical masks much more comfortable to breathe and work in, but less effective at stopping small particles from entering your mouth and nose.

Droplets of saliva and mucous from coughs and sneezes are very small, and viral particles themselves are particularly tiny – in fact, they’re about 20-times smaller than bacteria.

For this reason, a JAMA study published this month still contended that people without symptoms should not wear surgical masks, because there is not proof the gear will protect them from infection – although they may keep people who are coughing and sneezing from infecting others.

But the Oxford analysis of past studies- which has not yet been peer reviewed – found that surgical masks were worth wearing and didn’t provide statistically less protection than N95 for health care workers around flu patients.

However, any face mask is only as good as other health and hygiene practices. Experts universally agree that there’s simply no replacement for thorough, frequent hand-washing for preventing disease transmission.

Some think the masks may also help to ‘train’ people not to touch their faces, while others argue that the unfamiliar garment will just make people do it more, actually raising infection risks.

If the CDC does instruct Americans to wear masks, it could create a second issue: Hospitals already face shortages of masks and other PPE.

Mr Phipson added that it was different for countries using masks in Asia, where the market ‘has a huge capacity and a low cost base’.  

The Times today reported experts have been swayed on home-made face coverings and believe they could limit virus transmissibility. 

Masks made of cloth, such as those based on a scarf, are not as robust as face masks which are made of materials that filter germs. 

They won’t protect the wearer from catching the virus, but may stop them passing it on to others by catching tiny droplets in their breathe. 

Some senior ministers are pushing for a change in advice on masks in order to help ease the lockdown. 

A Whitehall source last night said the advice was likely to change at some point ‘even if the benefits are marginal’.

It comes after The Guardian’s claims that the Government missed out on 16million face masks for the NHS after ignoring offers from two major firms.

Infectious disease specialists Landcent claimed they could have delivered six million FFP2 masks for the NHS to use if they had placed an order three weeks ago. 

EcoLogix also claimed to have wrote to Number 10’s ‘COVID commercial response unit’ to offer a shipment of 10milllion FFP2 masks from China. 

They say they only got a response eight days later, by which time they had been sold to other countries.   

It is estimated there are currently around 8,000 different firms offering personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies in the UK. 

Meanwhile there was outrage over an RAF plane still grounded in Turkey waiting to pick up PPE supplies.    

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, launched what appeared to be a pre-emptive strike against any change in policy earlier this week.

He said ministers should ‘fully assess’ the impact that any new advice would have on health service supplies. 

Mr Hopson added there needs to be clear evidence that wearing masks will work ‘to potentially jeopardise NHS mask supply’.  

One expert yesterday said that even home made face masks could make a dramatic difference to the spread of the virus in the community.

Professor Trish Greenhalgh, of the University of Oxford, lent support to the use of home-made masks, saying they could ‘wipe out’ the virus if used widely.

She said they could reduce the R0 down to below one, allowing Britons to ‘get on with our lives’ and easing the lockdown.  

The term ‘R0’ refers to the average number of people who will catch the disease from a single infected person.

Professor Greenhalgh said she thought that many people would be supportive of the use of home-made ones for a temporary measure. 

She added: ‘This is a terrible, terrible disease, and anything we can do to stamp it out is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.’

But she added medical grade masks must be reserved for frontline workers, meaning home-made ones should only be used for the public.  

Meanwhile, a new initiative has been launched to encourage the public to make their own face masks.

The campaign, www.Maskedheroes.uk, aims to connect people who make masks to individuals and organisations in their community who need them. 

So, which face masks will actually keep you safe?

HOMEMADE MASK

Homemade mask (Stock image)

Homemade mask (Stock image)

WHAT IS IT? From vacuum cleaner bags to sanitary towels and scarves, look online and you will discover that just about anything can be turned into a mask.

COVID-19 EFFECTIVE? A 2013 Public Health England study looked at the suitability of various household materials that could be used as masks to filter bacterial and viral aerosols — and vacuum bags came out well.

Aim for multiple layers — U.S. researchers found that a double layer of tightly-woven cotton with a thread count of at least 180 was one of the best barriers.

WHERE CAN I GET ONE? Search your house and see what’s already there.

SURGICAL MASK

The surgical mask (stock image)

The surgical mask (stock image)

WHAT IS IT? The disposable mask that you see surgical staff wearing. These 3-ply masks are fluid-resistant and prevent infected droplets from the surgical staff entering the respiratory system of the patient.

COVID-19 EFFECTIVE? Thin surgical masks protect from large airborne droplets, but won’t block very small particles that may carry the virus. Once wet their efficacy is reduced, which is why they are disposable. But they are considered to offer better protection than a cloth mask.

WHERE CAN I GET ONE? In short supply. The advice is that medical masks should be saved for medical professionals. We found a box of 50 for £65.99 on medisave.co.uk.

DIY STORE DUST MASKS

DIY store mask (stock image)

DIY store mask (stock image)

WHAT IS IT? Dust masks and other disposable face masks all look similar, but levels of protection against particles that can pass through vary. If it says FFP1 then it’s a basic kind of dust mask (picture left).

COVID-19 EFFECTIVE? More protection than a surgical mask (only if it fits well). But with the lowest level of filtration for this kind of respirator mask (to meet European standards, they have to be able to filter at least 80 per cent of particles) it can’t filter out tiny particles associated with viruses and bacteria.

WHERE CAN I GET ONE? Normally at DIY stores from £1 a mask. Your best option is seeing if a local independent DIY store has stock and delivers.

CYCLING MASKS

Cycling mask (stock image)

Cycling mask (stock image)

WHAT IS IT? Neoprene anti-pollution masks. They contain an air filter to stop cyclists breathing in pollution in heavy traffic. But they are not regulated to the same standard as medical masks so protection levels can vary.

COVID-19 EFFECTIVE? While they are untested regarding coronavirus, they are intended to provide a layer of protection from airborne particles. Some are marketed as N95 or N99 grade (the U.S. equivalent to the European regulation rating: Filtering Face Piece, or FFP), which refers to airborne particles filtered — 95 or 99 per cent.

WHERE CAN I GET ONE? UK brand Cambridge Mask Company is taking pre-orders (pictured). Cycling masks are available from Amazon.

THE FFP3 mask

Medical-grade FFP3 mask (Stock image)

Medical-grade FFP3 mask (Stock image)

WHAT IS IT? Another respirator mask that eliminates even more small airborne particles than the N95/FFP2. FFP3 masks draw air through a filter embedded in the fabric that catches almost all airborne particles.

COVID-19 EFFECTIVE? Short of being a full-on gas mask affair, this is the best protection as long as it fits correctly. The mask blocks out 99 per cent of airborne particles.

WHERE CAN I GET ONE? In short supply, you can normally buy one at Wickes for under £3. The next step up is a heavy-duty reusable respirator used when spraying paint or chemicals — but not comfortable to wear all day.

Report by BETH HALE

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk