No benefit to mask outdoors when socially distancing, says professor

Covid-19 infection control expert Prof Martin says distance ‘is always your best bet’

There is no benefit to wearing a face-mask outdoors when you can socially distance, according to the HSE’s top Covid-19 infection control expert.

Prof Martin Cormican advises that "distance is always your best bet" in protecting against the virus and masks are "no substitute" for it.

Last Friday, the Government recommended the use of face-masks “in busy or crowded outdoor spaces where there is significant congregation,” as well as in places of worship and “crowded” workplaces.

Speaking to The Irish Times last week before the Government’s announcement, Prof Cormican said he could not see “any value” in wearing a mask when outdoors and more than two metres from people.


“I don’t wear a mask in any setting where I can keep two metres distance, nor is there any recommendation that you’re required to do so,” the HSE’s infection control lead said.

Masks and other forms of personal protective equipment are “what you do when you can’t avoid the risk in any other way”.

“If you can’t be distant – and contact is our stock in trade in healthcare – and you have to be close to people, that’s when you use PPE.”

‘Keeping your distance’

People get “mixed up” on this issue, he said. “They think it (PPE) is the solution. It is a solution; the one you deploy when you can’t do the other thing of keeping your distance.”

Earlier in the pandemic, Prof Cormican advocated against the use of face-masks for general use by people without symptoms and highlighted negative aspects such as cost and the creation of a “false sense of security”.

Asked if he has changed his view since then, he replied that there were lots of things he thinks differently about now compared to earlier in the year, but “it’s not clear” that the evidence around mask use has changed very much during the year.

“As a HSE clinical lead, I have a role in supporting the National Public Health Emergency Team and HSE position. I accept that decision was arrived at by the decision-making process in place.

“There is a very broad consensus in public health nationally and internationally that masks are of value. There is also a body of opinion that is less convinced.”

He cited a large Danish study published earlier this month which found there was no significant protective effect from mask-wearing at a time virus transmission in the country was low.

“I don’t think anyone says masks are useless. We’ve always recommended the use of masks in certain settings. Where people differ is in defining the setting where they should be used.”

Asked about the recent controversy about RTÉ presenters attending a going-away events for a departing colleague, Prof Cormican said that what they did was "not consistent with guidance but there's a bit of 'let he who is without sin throw the first stone'."

"There isn't a person in Ireland who has observed all the guidance all the time. Everyone makes mistakes."

The most important things people can do to reduce the risk posed by the virus is to stay at home if sick; keep your distance from others; and keep your social circle small.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.