To Mask or Not to Mask


At the time of writing, mask wearing has not been made compulsory in the UK. In March, I contacted a friend who sews professionally and asked her to make four cloth masks in case any of us got ill and needed to self-isolate within the house. At the same time, a friend in the health service put out a desperate message for protective equipment, so the first batch of masks ended up going to our local health team. Thus began a cottage industry in Moniaive, funded by the local Community Council, supplying free washable masks to people here who wanted them. This is ongoing. 

Unfortunately, like a lot of things, the subject of mask-wearing has become deeply politicised and mired with conspiracy theories. Since January, I have been following the research and policies around the world and in March, I took an online course on the Covid-19 pandemic with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. My firm opinion on the subject is that wearing masks significantly reduces the risk of spreading the illness and, in a small way, reduces the risk of catching it. 

So should we be forced to wear masks in public? Not really. Enforcing these things is never the best way forward. Unlike in some countries – e.g. Republic of Ireland or New Zealand – the public has not been trusted with reliable factual public information. Reluctance to promote mask wearing goes back to the the toilet paper shortage (which was caused by poor public information more than selfishness). Demand for surgical masks might exacerbate PPE shortages in the NHS. We have been let down, and misled. 

However, it’s simple. Covering the nose and mouth reduce virus particles flying out of our mouths when we speak. And for shouting, coughing and sneezing, the viurs travels far greater than two metres. Indoors the situation is worse and particles stay suspended in the air much longer. This is why the Scottish Government has advised people to wear masks on public transport and when shopping. 

From a statistical point of view, one person wearing a mask makes only a tiny difference, but as more and more people wear them, the community risk of infection starts to reduce dramatically. Wearing a mask is not particularly pleasant, but it is a simple act of kindness – about half the people spreading coronavirus have no symptoms at all and no idea they are spreaders. It could be you or me. 

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