Scientists, TDs call for change in policy on wearing face masks in public

Government urged to back measure as new evidence suggests use of basic masks in social settings can prevent spread of Covid-19

 The Health Information and Quality Authority said it is  reviewing international evidence on the effectiveness of face masks at reducing the transmission of respiratory viruses in the community.  Photograph: Reuters/Massimo Pinca

The Health Information and Quality Authority said it is reviewing international evidence on the effectiveness of face masks at reducing the transmission of respiratory viruses in the community. Photograph: Reuters/Massimo Pinca

 

Pressure has increased on the Government to require that face masks be worn routinely by the public to contain the Covid-19 virus, in line with a change in scientific opinion in favour of the measure.

Scientists and TDs have called for the change based on indication that basic face masks in social settings can prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation has welcomed a change in national policy, which now mandates surgical face masks in all settings for any healthcare workers who provide care within 2m of a patient including where social distancing cannot be maintained.

The Health Information and Quality Authority, which advises the Government and HSE on healthcare standards, said it is “currently reviewing international evidence on the effectiveness of face masks at reducing the transmission of respiratory viruses, including Covid-19, both in healthcare settings and in the community”.

This review would be published shortly, a Hiqa spokeswoman said.

In newly published guidelines, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises the wearing of basic masks including those made of cloth for all people in public spaces. Many other countries support the wearing of masks in such circumstances, while it is standard practice in many Asian countries in response to epidemics.

The World Health Organisation, however, has not advised such action though it is reviewing the latest scientific evidence. In the past, it has warned that face masks can facilitate spread of the coronavirus, especially if they are used incorrectly. It has also highlighted the critical need for higher spec face masks to be available for healthcare workers at a time of shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE).

Asymptomatic spread

A growing number of scientists, however, accept basic face masks may not prevent infection for a wearer but can protect others by not transmitting the virus they may not know they have – known as asymptomatic spread.

Immunologist Prof Luke O’Neill of Trinity College Dublin said he believed people will soon be required to wear masks in public. He strongly recommended people wear them when going outside, citing evidence that when infected people speak they produce aerosols that carry the virus.

Infectious diseases specialist Prof Sam McConkey of RCSI has also backed the wearing of masks by the public, but warned of unacceptable risk if it resulted in a shortage for frontline staff at a time when there is pressure to source PPE.

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith called on HSE officials on Wednesday to prepare a plan to make face masks freely and widely available for the general public and those who wish to wear them in public places.

“We see this happening in other European cities and countries, so I think it’s right that any member of the public who is expected to return to work or school should have such masks freely available if they wish to wear them,” she added.

She welcomed the change in policy on the use of protective equipment for healthcare workers, adding the change was especially welcome in nursing home settings. “The previous guidance was insane given the catastrophe we see in nursing homes, and the ability of the virus to spread via asymptomatic carriers.”

Fianna Fáil TD for Galway West Anne Rabbitte said the new policy “should be extended to public health nurses, social care and other healthcare professionals in the community”.

INMO general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha said the revised policy was welcome news for frontline staff and patients, which should ease some anxiety and reduce transmission of the virus.

“This should have been rolled out weeks ago, but we are glad to have finally secured this measure. It will not only benefit frontline healthcare workers, but will reduce the risk of transmission to patients.”