NHS will be priority in decision on face masks for public, says minister | World news

The government will bear in mind the need to prioritise face masks for the NHS frontline, a minister has said, as scientists are meeting on Tuesday to discuss whether the general public should be advised to wear them to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Simon Clarke, a local government minister, said there was “no clear scientific steer” at the moment that it was right to tell everyone to wear face masks and the priority had to be the NHS.

“We will always be guided by the advice that emerges from the scientific community,” he told BBC Breakfast. “At the moment, there is no consensus that this is the right thing to do. We are focused on making sure we get the proper supplies of PPE to the NHS and all parts of the frontline in the fight against coronavirus.

“And we will bear in mind representations from NHS Providers to prioritise supplies to where they will do the most good.”

He said he and his own family were not wearing masks and added: “Our focus needs to be on reinforcing the key message that that PPE needs to be going to the NHS frontline.”

World Health Organization (WHO) guidance on face masks has remained consistent during the coronavirus pandemic. It has stuck to the line that masks are for healthcare workers – not the public. 

“Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including Covid-19. However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted,” the WHO has stated.

There is no robust scientific evidence – in the form of trials – that ordinary masks block the virus from infecting people who wear them. There is also concerns the public will not understand how to use a mask properly, and may get infected if they come into contact with the virus when they take it off and then touch their faces.

Also underlying the WHO’s concerns is the shortage of high-quality protective masks for frontline healthcare workers.

Nevertheless, masks do have a role when used by people who are already infected. It is accepted that they can block transmission to other people. Given that many people with Covid-19 do not show any symptoms for the first days after they are infected, masks clearly have a potential role to play if everyone wears them.

 Sarah Boseley Health editor

Scientists will convene on Tuesday for a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) to discuss the issue, following a mooted change in guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has called for all Londoners to be told to wear non-medical masks on public transport, while some other countries, including the US, are now advising in favour of them.

However, experts in the UK have remained sceptical about their value, with Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer, saying evidence for them is “variable”.

Face masks are thought to be most useful in terms of preventing the wearer from spreading coronavirus rather than stopping the wearer contracting it, so would require a high degree of take-up to be useful.

There are also concerns that the public could cause shortages of supplies when medical masks are needed for frontline NHS and care staff.

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital bosses, said in a statement on Monday: “Fluid-repellent masks for health and care staff are key to safety and to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

“Securing the supply of masks, when there is huge global demand, is crucial. This must be a key consideration for government.

“There needs to be clear evidence that wearing masks, along with other measures, will deliver significant enough benefits to take us out of lockdown to potentially jeopardise NHS mask supply.”

One option is for the government to advise that homemade masks should be worn, rather than medical-grade ones.

The WHO is considering changing its guidance but is concerned that mask-wearing could lead to complacency about social distancing and handwashing.

It has said medical masks must be prioritised for health workers rather than the general public, although they can be useful in preventing the spread of the virus for those who have Covid-19 symptoms.

The WHO special envoy Dr David Nabarro has suggested that the widespread use of masks would become “the norm” during the coronavirus outbreak.

Clarke also provided an update on the overall provision of PPE for the NHS, saying it was “not going to run out” even though “margins are tight”.

He said the RAF was dispatched on Monday night to pick up a consignment of gowns that had been due to arrive at the weekend from Turkey to ease a severe shortage. However, he could not say when it would arrive beyond “the next few days”.

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