Government to launch public information campaign on face masks

Taoiseach defends State approach to face coverings, Harris calls message ‘confusing’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said the Government will launch a new public information campaign about the use of face masks, but warned that they are “not a magic shield” against the coronavirus.

He also said that social distancing of 1 metre rather than 2 metres is “much less of a risk than it was a few weeks ago when the virus was circulating in the community to a much greater extent than it is now” and they hoped to make a decision next week.

Mr Varadkar defended the Government’s approach and said they had to get it right after Labour leader Alan Kelly described the handling of the issue as an “absolute and chronic disaster”.

Speaking in the Dáil, the Taoiseach said masks were “not a magic shield or an alternative to physical distancing, hand washing or other things, but it can help in terms of additionality.”


However, Minister for Health Simon Harris later acknowledged opposition criticism that the Government’s messaging on the use of face masks has been “confusing”.

Mr Harris said “it is clear health advice that you should wear a face mask on public transport and in enclosed settings”.

But he said “we don’t have plans to change the law” on the use of face masks.

Mr Harris also told the Dáil that the reproduction rate of Covid-19 is estimated to be between 0.4 and 0.8 and it “remains stable” . This is the rate at which an infected person can transmit the disease to another person.

The Minister also expressed concern that “we have seen a growing number of household clusters”, which has gone from six to 16 in the last week.

State scheme

During the ongoing debate on Covid-19, Mr Kelly said the Government’s communication on face masks “ has been a disaster”.

The Tipperary TD said that “nobody should get on public transport without a mask, full stop. People should wear masks in retail outlets to protect workers. They deserve respect and to be protected.”

He called for a “once-off communication to everybody in the country that would provide examples of masks”.

In Catalonia, he said, everyone can get a free mask in a pharmacy and then buy one for less than €1.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the idea that a mask should only be required if the State provides them “is absurd”.

He said it was “long past time to require masks to be worn in various settings”. He said there “is no evidence of masks causing harm and mounting evidence of them preventing the spread of the virus”.

Mr Martin added that “they are cheap to make and every country which introduced rules on face covering has been able to implement them without discrimination and without State schemes”.

Mr Varadkar acknowledged there were advised guidelines from the World Health Organisation and they wanted to make sure they “launch a public information campaign that does not change in a week or two when new advice arrives. We want to get it right.”

He also said that people should “not wear it around the neck like a scarf because it is a mask”.

Referring to social distancing, he said moving from 2 metres to 1 metre in social distancing would be a “calculated risk” and he hoped the Government could make a decision next week.

Work was being done with the Health Surveillance Protection Centre and Government departments to “calculate and quantify that risk, so that if we make a decision to change the advice or to make exceptions to the advice that we know the risk we’re taking”.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times