The Government has urged members of the public to refrain from wearing clinical face masks so supplies are available for NHS and care workers who need them most.
Speaking at a regular press conference on Friday Health Secretary Matt Hancock said choosing to wear a mask was not a “risk-free option”.
It comes amid fears that the health service is facing shortages of protective equipment. Authorities on Friday declined to say how many NHS staff had died from coronavirus, citing confidentiality reasons.
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“We follow the science and the science on the use of face masks says that they don’t have a material impact outside of those settings that Public Health England have set out,” Mr Hancock said.
“But also here we are following the international evidence too: the WHO themselves have looked into this and came to the conclusion that facemasks should be saved for those in health and care who really need them.
“It is not a risk-free option for everybody to wear facemasks because that means it’s harder to get hold of face masks for people where the science says they’re needed.”
Speaking at the same press conference, Jonathan Van-Tam, one of England’s deputy chief medical officers, said:
“In terms of face masks and general wearing of them by the public, I do know that this is a very vexed, and very emotive issue with citizens all around the world, frankly. We have kept this under very careful and repetitive scientific review. Our expert advisors committee … met again this week to consider all of these matters and we do remain convinced that there just isn’t the evidence base to support general mask wearing use by the public.
“You’ve probably seen the paper that was released four days ago by Paul Hunter’s team from the University of East Anglia. They have been through all of that evidence again – we have looked at all of that evidence in that paper again, and it remains the case that we do not see at this point a persuasive argument for general mask wearing by the public .
“But I want to assure you personally that we will keep the science evidence under review and we are going to be guided by the science. If the science evidence changes then we will change.”
This week the World Health Organisation released a review of evidence on the use of face masks. Prof David Heymann, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who chaired the WHO’s scientific and technical advisory group, said that outside of a clinical setting masks were only suitable “for the protection of others, not for the protection of oneself”.
“People think they are protected when they are not,” he added. “Healthcare workers, in addition to the masks, wear visors too, to protect the eyes.”