Conflicting advice about face masks

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An employee transports boxes in the warehouse of medical equipment storage facility 'Fiege' on April 3, 2020 in Apfelstaedt, eastern Germany. (Photo by Martin Schutt / POOL / AFP) (Photo by MARTIN SCHUTT/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, most Western countries did not initially recommend that the general public should wear face masks, but now many governments are suggesting, or even insisting that everyone should cover their mouth and nose.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said that face masks should only be worn by the sick and those people caring for them, but others say that everyone should wear them as a precaution.

The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and Bulgaria have either imposed or recommended wearing face masks.  However, Germany, France and Belgium have been more cautious about the recommendations.

Some say that the WHO’s advice against wearing them stems from a global shortage of masks, and a desire to make sure that there are enough for health workers, although a spokesperson from WHO has denied those claims.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has been defending the government’s policy.  “As soon as we realised that there would be more need, we tried to increase our national [production] capacity… as well as buy from abroad,” he said.

What type of masks?

The Czech Republic said that any mask made from cotton would be much better than nothing, and German authorities have backed this claim by saying simple protective masks can prevent the risk of spreading the disease.  Most medical claims suggest that they don’t offer any protection to the wearer, but that simple masks can stop it being passed to others.

The conclusion?  There is little or no evidence that suggests wearing a mask is pointless, and advice ranging from “it can’t hurt”, to “you must wear one”, suggests that wearing something to cover your nose and mouth in public is the right way to go.