Katy Balls

Why ministers are reluctant to change face mask guidance

Why ministers are reluctant to change face mask guidance
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'Will the public be asked to wear face masks in public?' This is a topic of debate today for the government’s SAGE committee of scientific advisers. Although the government dismissed the idea early on in the coronavirus pandemic, many other countries have since changed their own advice in support of them (read Dr John Lee's analysis of the medical evidence here). Chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance has recently suggested they could play a role in stemming infection:

The evidence on masks is much more persuasive for masks stopping you giving it to somebody than it is for preventing you catching it. We have a review ongoing at the moment on the evidence around masks. If that review concludes that the position should change, we will of course make that recommendation and if it stays the same we will make that clear as well.

Local government minister Simon Clarke said this morning that there was 'no clear scientific steer' at the moment that it was right to tell everyone to wear face masks. But in government there is a growing view that masks could play a part in reducing the spread of infection. 

So is it a no brainer the advice will be changed? Not yet. The reluctance to change the official advice comes down to something else: concerns over PPE. There is already a shortage of protective equipment for NHS and social care staff. As a result, ministers and hospital chiefs worry a change in advice could lead to consumers buying up masks that medical workers need. In America, they have made a distinction between masks for members of the public and surgical staff by urging the public to use basic cloth masks rather than surgical ones.

When the lockdown easing eventually begins, there's a good chance the face mask guidance will have been changed. This is for a few reasons. Firstly, the government's five tests for easing lockdown include sufficient supply of PPE – rather than hand to mouth deliveries from around the world, ministers want a clear and stable supply chain in place. Once that exists worries over a face mask consumer rush would ease significantly.

Secondly, according to polling, public support for the lockdown remains very high. The 'stay home, save lives' message has been so effective that ministers now believe they could have a job on their hands eventually convincing the public it's safe to go back to work and use public transport. A visible measure such as face masks could go some way to easing their concerns.