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Science on face masks is mixed says UEA expert

PUBLISHED: 07:59 14 July 2020 | UPDATED: 07:59 14 July 2020

Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia. Picture: UEA

Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia. Picture: UEA

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The effectiveness of wearing face coverings to stop the spread of coronavirus is still unclear, a leading expert at the University of East Anglia has said.

People will have to wear coverings in shops when it becomes compulsory from July 24. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA ImagesPeople will have to wear coverings in shops when it becomes compulsory from July 24. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Images

Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said studies, including into the widespread use of face masks in European countries, had shown mixed results.

Wearing face covering in shops and supermarkets is to be made mandatory from July 24.

In a statement on Tuesday, health secretary Matt Hancock will say anyone failing to comply with the order - which comes into force on July 24 - could face a fine of up to £100.

The move follows a weekend of confusion over whether ministers intended to make face coverings compulsory after Boris Johnson said they were looking at “stricter” rules.

Prof Hunter said: “We certainly needed a decision. It is one that I’m comfortable with and I think what we need now is not only the decision but more education about what this means, what type of face masks we should be wearing, how we should be wearing them and what we should be doing when we’ve finished with them, to back up with general advice.

“That will hopefully come out in the coming days but I think a lot of people are still unsure how to wear masks properly.

“You have only just got to go around the streets and see how some people are wearing masks in a way that isn’t really doing any good for anybody.”

MORE: Face coverings mandatory in shops: what you need to know

Speaking to the BBC, Prof Hunter said evidence surrounding the use of masks outside hospitals was not clear.

Shoppers in Norwich wearing face masks. Picture: Brittany WoodmanShoppers in Norwich wearing face masks. Picture: Brittany Woodman

He said: “It must be said there is still no grand consensus amongst scientists as to whether or not face masks actually contribute to the control of Covid-19 outside of hospitals.

“We know the evidence inside hospitals is very good. Outside the evidence is poorer. We know from laboratory studies if you have Covid-19 and are wearing a face mask then that reduces the dispersion into the air around you. The problem is whether that laboratory science actually plays out in the community.

“Randomised control trials have actually struggled to find any benefit from face coverings during influenza outbreaks and epidemics, but other studies, what we call case control studies, suggest there might actually be quite a strong benefit.”

The use of masks in shops and indoors settings have become common in other European countries.

Commuters wearing face masks travelling on buses in Norwich. They will also be required in shops from July 24. Picture: Denise BradleyCommuters wearing face masks travelling on buses in Norwich. They will also be required in shops from July 24. Picture: Denise Bradley

Making them mandatory will bring England into line with Scotland, where face coverings are already required in shops.

Prof Hunter said: “When we have tried to demonstrate an impact in Europe from the recent introduction of face masks we have actually found it quite difficult to show a really strong effect. In part that is probably because people are not really wearing them properly.

“The important thing is that face masks aren’t a guarantee that you aren’t going to get infected or that you aren’t going to infect someone else. So you still have to follow the advice about social distancing and make sure you wash your hands. It’s not an excuse to relax all the other things we have been encouraged to do.”


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