Friday, 5 June 2020

The inevitable face mask U-turn

Nothing was more inevitable than the British government making face masks compulsory - starting with public transport - but what a ride it has been. As with everything involving the coronavirus, we are just copying the rest of the world with a lag of a month or two

Everyone knew the government was only discouraging people from buying face masks because it wanted to make sure medics had a good supply of them. And everyone knew that face masks provided some protection against the virus because that's why medics use them.

The government's concerns were perfectly understandable, but it must have known a U-turn would eventually come, so why did the authorities leave so many hostages to fortune?

In a document from February that deserves to go down in infamy, Public Health England said that even medical staff wouldn't generally need to wear face masks:

During normal day-to-day activities facemasks do not provide protection from respiratory viruses, such as COVID-19 and do not need to be worn by staff in any of these settings.
Facemasks are only recommended to be worn by infected individuals when advised by a healthcare worker, to reduce the risk of transmitting the infection to other people. 

Perhaps, but people don't know they're infected until the symptoms appear a few days after the infection took place.

As if determined to get this paragraph included in the list of all-time bad takes, the next sentence says:

It remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.

That, as they say, didn't age well.

On 3 March, the day after the mayor of London claimed that there was 'no risk' of catching the coronavirus on public transport, the Advertising Standards Agency banned two adverts for face masks because they were 'misleading, irresponsible and likely to cause fear without justifiable reason'. One of the adverts said:

"It would be an understatement to say that there is a growing sense of panic.

"The best advice I've heard is to stay calm and take practical measures to protect yourself.

"One of the best ways to protect yourself is to get a high-quality face mask that can protect you from: viruses, bacteria, and other air pollutants."

Who said this was misleading? Step forward again, Public Health England...

The ASA said the adverts were "misleading" because the claims went against official advice.

A spokesman said Public Health England informed the ASA "that they do not recommend the use of face masks as a means of protection from coronavirus".

"We understood there was very little evidence of widespread benefit from their use outside of clinical settings," the ASA said in a statement.
NHS medical director Stephen Powis also stuck his oar in, saying:

"Callous firms looking to maximise profits by pushing products that fly in the face of official advice is outright dangerous and has rightly been banned."

A defensible position would have been to say that the evidence on the general use of face masks is mixed and that they do not guarantee protection. Instead, the authorities actively discouraged the public from wearing them and attacked the companies selling them.

In fact, the evidence that they provide some protection is quite strong (which, as I say, is why medics wear them) and Public Health England began its reverse ferret last month when it advised people to wear 'face coverings' in enclosed public places and gave us instructions on how to make them.

But remember, these are face 'coverings', not face masks, and so the science is obviously totally different and you'll have to wear them by law on public transport from 15 June. Why not straight away? God knows, but I'm sure the government is still FoLLoWiNg TeH SciEnCe šŸ„“.

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