Government was advised against recommending cloth face masks

Scientific expert group raised concerns over effectiveness, preferring medical masks

People wear a face masks at Leeds station, UK. Photorgraph: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

People wear a face masks at Leeds station, UK. Photorgraph: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

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Scientific experts advising the Government on its Covid-19 response recommended against the use of cloth face masks by the public due to concerns over their effectiveness and the risk of harm.

Instead, the Government’s Expert Advisory Group on the pandemic recommended the use of “medical face masks” in settings such as public transport and shops where “physical distancing cannot be maintained”.

However, its advice was changed because of concerns over the effect this might have on the supply of masks for healthcare workers, minutes of the National Public Health Emergency Team show.

The Government approved the subsequent recommendation from NPHET and from last Monday, the wearing of “face coverings”, including home-made and cloth versions, has been recommended in locations such as shops and public transport.

According to NPHET minutes from May 1st, Expert Advisory Group chairman Dr Cillian de Gascun said it recommended guidance be made available to the public explaining the appropriate use of a medical face mask.

Consideration should be given as to how this recommendations could be equitably implemented, as requiring people to buy their own masks could “exacerbate” health inequalities, he said.

The group recommended the public be advised that medical face-masks and respirator masks should be prioritised for healthcare workers and that the recommendation could only be made if “sufficient confidence” existed in their availability for the foreseeable future.

The group also recommended against the wearing of latex or nitrile gloves as these could increase the risk of transmitting Covid-19 if worn inappropriately for long periods.

According to the minutes, NPHET noted the “caveat” from Dr de Gascun’s group about the availability of medical face-masks and discussed the need to increase the indigenous supply of all grades of masks.

The meetings agreed, “applying the precautionary principle”, to recommend the use of “face coverings” in the community as part of the reduction of public health social distancing measures.