Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly expressed surprise that higher-grade face masks were not recommended over cloth masks as the more infectious Omicron wave took hold last month.
New correspondence released by the Department of Health shows that Mr Donnelly raised concerns with the State's chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan about the quality of recommended masks in early January as the new Covid-19 variant led to a surge in cases.
Mr Donnelly told Dr Holohan in a January 2nd email that he was “somewhat surprised” at the recommendation of an expert advisory group just before Christmas that respirator masks, such as the FFP2 or equivalent mask, were not required for the wider population.
“While I accept that there may be barriers to implementation and that some people may find them hard to tolerate, I do not understand why we would not recommend highly effective certified masks,” the minister said in his email released under the Freedom of Information Act.
“I believe we must provide clear communications that FFP2 (or equivalent) provide greater protection. People can make their own choices. I’m aware that a number of countries are already recommending medical masks, as opposed to cloth face coverings as the latter are regarded as inferiors.”
He pointed to advice on the HSE’s website advising that cloth face masks are “what most people should wear in places where a face mask is required.”
Mr Donnelly wrote: “I believe we have a duty to inform people that open-weave cloth coverings provider inferior protection. Given just how transmissible Omicron is, I would like the existing advice to be reconsidered/revisited as a matter of urgency.”
Expired legal requirement
Ten days later, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) advised the Government that higher-grade respirator masks may better protect people at higher risk from Covid-19 but stopped short of recommending their use to the public instead of cloth face coverings.
Nphet said that medical and respirator masks, if properly worn, would offer greater protection than cloth masks but stressed that all types of masks reduce transmission.
Other EU countries such as Germany, Austria and Italy had introduced the use of FFP2 or equivalent masks in public spaces.
The legal requirement to wear masks expired on Monday but people are still be advised to continue to wear a mask on public transport and in healthcare settings.
Anyone who contracts Covid-19 has to isolate for seven days and, if they are 13 years or older, they should wear a medical grade or FFP2 mask for 10 days.
Private nursing homes have been advised by their representative group, Nursing Homes Ireland, to continue to insist on mask wearing for visitors at care homes.
The more contagious Omicron variant led to the highest number of Covid-19 infections of any of the five waves to affect the State during the pandemic.
More than 500,000 people tested positive through confirmed Covid-19 PCR tests since the start of the year with tens of thousands more reporting positive antigen test results to the HSE.