Masks in schools: how convincing is the government’s evidence?

Why has the government changed its mind and asked children to wear masks in school? When Plan B was announced last month, there was no requirement. But that has changed. Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, was asked why on Monday. He replied that ‘we conducted a small observational study with 123 schools who had followed mask-wearing in classrooms before and saw that they made a difference’. He suggested it was quite a significant study. ‘If you just think it through, with a respiratory disease that is aerosol-transmitted, if you are asymptomatic but wearing a mask, you’re much, much less likely to infect other people.’ The government has now published an ‘Evidence Summary’

Do masks really halve the risk of Covid? A note on the evidence

‘Most of the trouble in life comes from misunderstanding’ as Willy Loman said in Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece An Inspector Calls. Grating isn’t it? But also a reasonable facsimile of how science reporting often reads, at least to those of us self identifying as scientists. Pre-Covid it was so. With Covid the problem has become, well, an epidemic. Recent reporting about the efficacy of masks is a classic case in point. You might remember the study in question: it certainly made headlines when it came out. ‘Mask-wearing cuts Covid incidence by 53 per cent, says global study’, stated the Guardian: ‘results from more than 30 studies from around the world were analysed

Do masks really slash the risk of catching Covid?

Which public health interventions help to cut the spread of Covid-19 — and which do not? Except for vaccinations, where we have extensive trial data, this is a question on which the government has had little information to help it. But this morning’s headlines appear to offer an answer: wearing masks may help slash Covid infections by 53 per cent. Unfortunately, what the headlines don’t tell us is what kind of mask-wearing, where and in which circumstances. Do we need surgical grade masks or will cloth do? Should we wear them in the street or just indoors? Can we take them off if travelling in a near-empty train carriage? The

The new mask regime: a legal guide

Mask wearing has been compelled by law. Very soon the government has said that compulsion will end (in England at least). There is little in life more terrifying than being British and put in a new social situation without clear rules. So while we contemplate the dread of inevitably offending someone no matter what we do, it might be helpful to clarify what this means from the point of view of the law. The first and most important point is that just because the government stops making mask wearing a legal requirement, that doesn’t mean that mask wearing stops being a legal requirement. Why? Because our legal system gives lots of

Boris’s ‘freedom day’ spells misery for many

The projection from Sajid Javid that Covid-19 infections could surge to a record 100,000 per day in a few weeks, as all social distancing and mask-wearing regulations are removed, is especially terrifying for those whose immune systems are impaired or are clinically vulnerable in other ways. There are millions of these frail people. For those whose immune systems are compromised or suppressed, the efficacy of vaccines is much reduced. For others among the frail, any residual risk of becoming infected is too great, because for them it is literally a matter of life or death. So when you hear politicians and others talking about the important freedom to choose not

How stupid do the script writers of Sky’s Devils think we are?

Here’s a worried question I want to plant in your head: when is TV drama going to start depicting the world we actually live in, where almost everyone wears masks, even outdoors? The current state of affairs — watching people on screen in familiar locations interacting closely, as we used to, and not wearing face-coverings — is a bit jarring. But it’s greatly preferable to the alternative: mumbled lines even more unintelligible than they are usually, smiles and teeth and noses and lips hidden behind a rag — and concealed with them not just beauty or character but half the means our faces use to convey emotion. I wonder, though,

Face masks in schools: a note on the evidence

Secondary-school children returning to school from 8 March will be required to wear masks in classrooms, at least for several weeks. That is in contrast to the initial return of children to school last summer. It wasn’t until November that they were required to wear masks at school, and then only in corridors and other communal areas. But should we be forcing children to wear masks? A German study – in a preprint which has yet to be peer-reviewed – has reported negative symptoms of children who wear masks in that country.  As the researchers point out, there is a lack of evidence on the use of masks in school

Sweden’s Covid Christmas farce

Sweden has become an international phenomenon for its relaxed response to the Covid-19 pandemic – which some critics describe as careless. Its no-lockdown strategy has been based almost solely on personal responsibility. This point has been made to Swedes by solemn-faced politicians, most recently before Christmas. It’s up to every Swedish citizen to maintain social distancing and, if possible, work from home. Restaurants, bars, cafés, shops, and even malls have stayed open throughout the crisis. Face masks have not been recommended nor encouraged (although in a surprising change of heart from the authorities, masks will be made mandatory from January 7 in certain situations, such as on public transport during peak hours).

Boris’s clash over masks

‘Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme,’ the free market economist Milton Friedman famously noted. So just how permanent will social distancing measures be? As more positive news about vaccines and their distribution rolls in, it will be a question that grows louder: how much longer will we be asked to live with Covid rules, and might anyone make the case for keeping them in place after the virus is under control? We caught a glimpse of the different opinions circling Whitehall tonight, when the Prime Minister and Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam clashed over the future of mask-wearing. During the Covid press conference, the Sun asked

Eight key questions on the Danish facemask study

The ‘Danmask-19 trial‘ sought to test whether face masks are effective in preventing infection with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) for the wearer. It found that the recommendation to wear surgical masks to supplement other public health measures ‘did not reduce the SARS-CoV-2 infection rate among wearers by more than half in a community’. So does this mean wearing masks is a waste of time? There are several reasons that drawing such a conclusion from this study might be unwise. A randomised controlled trial (RCT) is often – though not always – the best way of testing whether a treatment works, because RCTs guard against the biases inherent in many other

Letters: what unites the two sides of the mask debate

Wind worries Sir: You are right to side with the 2013 version of Boris Johnson, when he claimed that wind power could not pull the skin off a rice pudding (‘Boris’s second wind’, 10 October). However, it was wrong to claim that offshore wind at £40 per megawatt hour makes Hinkley Point C, at over twice that price, look like a bad deal. The nuclear plant will be able to provide reliable, constant baseload power for up to 50 years. A wind plant will provide power only when the wind is blowing (and not blowing too hard). To provide reliable baseload requires fossil-fuelled backup. Second, the £40 per megawatt hour