WHO envoy calls for mandatory face masks on public transport

Dr David Nabarro tells Oireachtas committee coverings are best protection against Covid-19

Face coverings should be mandatory on public transport and are a "proper part" of the overall strategy to fight Covid-19, a special envoy with the World Health Organisation has said.

At the Dáil's Covid committee, Dr David Nabarro said his personal view was that regular face coverings should ideally have multiple layers but there was no need for special material or cloth.

“What is really important is not so much how the mask is made but how it’s worn and making sure there are not gaps and then making sure that people don’t believe that the mask is working if they’ve got it under their noses. That is really unhelpful.”

He said it would be “reasonable” to make it compulsory for commuters to wear face masks on public transport.


“I do think we need to try and push from saying people ‘should’ do to people ‘really must’ do.”

Dr Nabarro said face coverings “really are necessary because people may well be able to transmit the virus before they show symptoms of the disease. The use of face masks is important in situations where individuals are likely to be exposed to a lot of illness.”

“I believe that the use of face protection is a part of emerging from lockdown and other stringent controls to be able to live with the virus.”

He said people are more likely to wear masks if they are made available free of charge.

It comes after the director of UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory Cillian De Gascun said that sending masks to Irish households would be a good idea.

Mr De Gascun also said there was not great evidence that the virus was stopped by non-medical grade or cloth masks.

Dr Nabarro said there is a “massive area of disagreement” about the effectiveness of masks but he personally witnessed the role face coverings had in the Sars outbreak.

“You’ve got one group of people who say the science isn’t very strong plus if you have people wearing masks widely that will lead them to have a false sense of complacency. On the other side we have people, and I belong to that camp, who feel that this is a proper part of an overall strategy especially when people have to be close up,” he told the committee.

“Why do I feel like that, because I was working in South East Asia in 2003 and 2004 after the Sars outbreak and I saw the role that face protections had.”

Dr Nabarro also raised the prospect of diners wearing face masks in restaurants.

“I was saying to a colleague the other day that if they are going to open restaurants in France and have people indoors then the diners ought to be wearing masks to protect the waiters. My friend said no way that will ever happen.

“But from a logical point of view, being responsible, it is the people who service who we need to protect.

“It is about respect for those who service who often have no choice but to do the work because they are poor and suffered huge income losses due to lockdown.”

He said the “decent thing to do is wear a mask and protect the person serving you.”

Earlier this week, a UK study found population-wide face mask use could push Covid-19 transmission down to controllable levels, and prevent further waves of the virus when combined with minor lockdowns.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times