Suffocation. Itchy. Dehumanization. Oppressive. Deeply un-British. Just a few of the terms used to describe the mask wearing experience.
Despite the discomfort, we have taken it for the health of our nation and we are told to do whatever we can to end this nightmare as soon as possible.
And last week, London Mayor Sadiq Khan argued that we should extend anger to nature – on our main roads – to protect our Christmas colleagues.
The World Health Organization (WHO) asks us to wear face masks at the Christmas table.
Despite the discomfort, we endure the wearing of face masks for the health of our nation and we are told we must do everything possible to end this nightmare as soon as possible
But does all wearing a face mask help? Surveys show that three-quarters of Britons wear masks in mandatory areas – in public transit, offices, pubs and restaurants when they’re not at a table, and in most indoor spaces.
Nonetheless, the infection is still spreading at a rate that would allow 38 million Britons to be banned from mixing indoors with anyone outside their household.
Last week, cases increased in all regions of England except Yorkshire and the Humber, and infection rates in some regions doubled from April.
So are they useless after all? If Mr. Khan’s logic is to be believed, the problem may be that we don’t wear them outdoors – surrounded by crowds. However, studies show that only 1 in 100 cases is transmitted outside.
Nations like Spain and Italy that introduced the use of masks outdoors have not been spared further devastating waves.
Indoors, masks are believed to trap the virus particles expelled from an infected person’s mouth or nose when they cough, stutter, sneeze, or speak. Over the past six months, some studies seem to have shown that they are effective at doing this. In June, The Lancet compiled data from 172 studies in 16 countries and concluded that two meters of social distancing and wearing a face mask reduced the risk of contracting Covid.
An American study published in August found that rates were four times lower in countries where wearing masks was considered the norm or government enforced.
In the UK, most of the data has shown that masks are effective at the population level when an infected person wears them.
A sign urging people to wear protective face masks displayed in London earlier this year. Surveys show that three quarters of British people wear masks in mandatory areas
Professor Paul Digard, a virologist at the University of Edinburgh who was involved in the study, explains: “One of the main sources of transmission is droplets of liquid – such as coughs and sneezes – that make the virus fly through the air.
“Covid particles are too small to be stopped by a mask, but they often migrate in larger water droplets. These droplets are large enough to be enclosed in a mask. “
However, droplets aren’t the only way the virus can spread. In July, the WHO published new guidelines on the spread of viruses through smaller, light particles that move through the air like smoke or dust and linger long after the infected person leaves the region.
“Masks can do little to stop transmission in the air,” says Prof. Digard. “Covid particles that are not in water droplets are too small to be stopped by them.” However, he adds that only a minority of infections are transmitted by airborne infections because viral particles don’t linger in the air too long. However, there is little evidence of effectiveness in real-world environments.
Most of the research, completed in the spring and summer, involved laboratory testing using artificial respirators to simulate human coughs and observing how effective masks limit the movement of water droplets.
Last week, London Mayor Sadiq Khan argued that we should extend anger to nature – on our main roads – to protect our Christmas colleagues
A real test in which 6,000 participants wore surgical masks in public at all times turned out to be inconclusive. Professor Jimmy Whitworth of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine adds, “Even real-world studies are hampered by the fact that you don’t know if participants are actually wearing the mask, if at all.”
There is little research into whether we wear masks properly, but experts say this is an aspect of the debate that is often overlooked. Says Prof. Whitworth, “Studies show it is effective, but it has to be worn properly – with your mouth and nose covered.”
Whether they prevent the virus from entering and protect the carrier is even weaker.
Studies don’t take into account unknown variables – like how often people wear them. “Masks are unlikely to keep you from contracting the virus, but they are much more likely to trap infected drops of water from your mouth,” says Prof. Digard.
Masks are a less powerful tool than the other major damage control measure – social distancing. According to a national poll in October, 42 percent of Britons had broken the two-meter rule at some point, compared with just a tenth who hadn’t worn a face mask in a store.
Says Prof. Whitworth, “The two top risk factors for catching Covid are poor ventilation and overcrowding. The more air you share with others, the more likely you are to catch them. “
However, we believe that masks will lessen the harm to crowds.
Official advice is to wear face masks when social distancing is not an option. Data suggests that this is actually true, and scientists say if there weren’t any masks, the cases could be even higher.
Commuters imagined wearing face masks on the anniversary line at Canada Water Station in London this November
Public Health England figures show that between August and October most of the outbreaks occurred in schools and workplaces – environments where mask wearing is low. Only children over the age of 12 are allowed to wear a mask. They are allowed to undress them at their desks, while many workplaces don’t force masks to be worn. Meanwhile, pubs and restaurants that require the wearing of masks and only small groups can congregate account for around five percent of all outbreaks.
Another hotspot is in each other’s homes, where people rarely wear masks.
The truth is, we don’t know exactly how effective masks are. “But common sense tells us this is worth doing,” says Prof. Whitworth.
Prof. Digard regards laboratory studies as sufficient evidence that masks offer more protection than they do not – and not always directly.
Italian research shows that wearing masks increases the likelihood that we will also adhere to social distancing and other restrictions related to Covid. Professor Julian Tang of the University of Leicester says: “Scientists believed that masks would make people feel wrong and complacent. However, studies show that the opposite is true. When people put on masks, they become more aware of their surroundings and stick to the rules. “
Even if wearing masks has little or no benefit, it ultimately carries little to no risk.
As Prof. Digard says, “What is there to lose while wearing one?”
Don’t forget to wash yours …
The UK’s poor hygiene habits can be one reason masks are not achieving the desired effect.
In October, a YouGov poll found that 85 percent of Britons don’t wash reusable face coverings properly between uses. Amazingly, 15 percent said they had never washed them.
In September, the government’s scientific advisory group, SAGE, released a report urging people to wash their masks properly and warning that dirty masks could increase the risk of spreading Covid-19.
Professor Julian Tang says: “Studies show that touching an unwashed mask can result in transmission of Covid if the virus is present on the surface.”
The reuse of disposable masks is also a problem. A study by the University of Oxford found that continuous use of disposable surgical masks for more than six hours loosened the fabric and made it less possible for expelled droplets and particles to become trapped in the air.
Those clogged with dirt attracted virus particles that adhered to the material and increased the risk of infection of the wearer.