The UK has seen surge in the number of Covid cases in recent days, and experts have warned that the country is facing another “winter crisis” if immediate action is not taken to control the spread of the virus.
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, warned that infections are expected to rise as winter “is drawing closer”. On Wednesday, Public Health England reported 49,139 new cases and a further 179 deaths.
But the government has insisted it will stick to its current plan instead of bringing back virus-related restrictions.
Health secretary Sajid Javid on Wednesday ruled out immediately implementing the government’s “Plan B” strategy. Plan B is a contingency measure that could include reintroducing the legal mandate to wear face masks in some settings, bringing in Covid-status certification, and asking people to work from home.
His announcement came after medical professionals issued an urgent warning to reimpose some Covid measures or risk “stumbling into a winter crisis” and overwhelming the NHS.
Officials at the NHS Confederation called on prime minister Boris Johnson to “introduce measures, such as mandatory face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces, without delay to keep people well”.
Following Javid’s announcement, doctors from the British Medical Association accused ministers of being “wilfully negligent”, adding that virus control measures are “the norm in many other nations”.
So should the government make it a legal obligation for people to wear masks in certain settings again, and will people comply?
What are the current rules about face masks?
Rules around when and where people should wear face masks are different across the UK.
The legal requirement to wear a face covering in England was lifted on 19 July. In most other settings, both indoor and outdoor, it is recommended, but not required, that people wear a face mask if they cannot socially distance. However, they remain mandatory in healthcare settings and care homes.
Wearing a mask remains a condition of carriage on TfL services. Those who are seen not wearing masks and who are not exempt, could be refused entry, denied travel or told to leave stations and services.
Elsewhere, the rules are stricter. Scotland mandates the wearing of face masks in shops, public transport, and in pubs and restaurants when not seated, as well as for all school staff and secondary school students.
In Wales, people are still legally required to wear masks on public transport and in all public indoor spaces, except pubs and restaurants. In Northern Ireland, face coverings are compulsory on public transport, in shops and in hospitality venues.
Should the government reintroduce mandatory face masks?
Experts and medical professionals are ramping up pressure on the government to bring back mandatory face masks in indoor public settings and public transport.
BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said that the government has “taken its foot off the brake, giving the impression that the pandemic is behind us and that life has returned to normal”.
Dr Nathalie MacDermott, an academic clinical lecturer at King’s College London, described the current situation as “disturbing”, adding that comments made by ministers that the UK is doing well in learning to live with Covid-19 suggested “a dismissive attitude to the situation”.
“Learning to live with the virus does not mean ignoring its presence, it means adopting lifestyle measures that we consistently apply to reduce the spread of the virus, but which do not impose too significant limitations on our freedoms,” she said.
“Wearing a face mask is an option we can all implement that will protect others, but it would seem many people no longer feel the need to do this, even in locations where it is specifically requested, such as on public transport.”
What is the science behind wearing face masks?
Wearing a face mask is still one of the simplest ways to protect yourself and others from catching coronavirus.
Covid-19 is an airborne virus, and is carried through the air by tiny respiratory droplets that are released when an infected person exhales. These small droplets, called aerosols, can linger indoors for at least five minutes, often longer is there is no fresh air.
According to the Department of Health and Social Care, wearing a face covering reduces the dispersion of these droplets. This means that a person infected with Covid-19 would be less likely to spread it when they breathe in and out or speak while wearing a mask.
Studies looking at the effects of wearing face masks have shown that they provide a “clearly protective” impact on the number of new Covid cases.
An international report by The Lancet, which analysed 172 studies in 16 countries, found that wearing a mask and practising social distancing reduced the risk of catching coronavirus to just three per cent.
The same study found that the risk of infection to a person wearing a mask is decreased by 65 percent compared to those who do not.
But England’s decision to lift the mask mandate in July made it an “outlier” among the rest of the UK nations, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said.
New coronavirus cases in England is increasing at a much steeper rate compared to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who have stricter rules on wearing face masks.
On 19 October, England recorded 9,965 cases, whereas Scotland recorded 212, Wales recorded nine, and Northern Ireland recorded 1,380.
Do I still need to wear a face mask if I’m fully vaccinated?
Yes. The World Health Organisation urged fully-vaccinated people to continue wearing face masks to stop highly-contagious variants of Covid-19 from spreading.
This is because while those who are fully-vaccinated against the virus are less likely to suffer from severe symptoms if they contract it, they can still spread it to vulnerable people, including those who are unvaccinated.
Dr Mariangelo Simao, WHO assistant director-general for access to medicines and health products, told a news briefing in June: “People cannot feel safe just because they had the two doses. They still need to protect themselves.
“Vaccines alone won’t stop community transmission. People need to continue to use masks consistently, be in ventilated spaces, hand hygiene… the physical distance, avoid crowding.
“This still continues to be extremely important, even if you’re vaccinated when you have a community transmission ongoing.”
Would people go back to wearing masks?
Behavioural expert Professor Linda Bauld predicts that the majority of people will likely go back to wearing masks if it was made mandatory again.
“It’s social norms that drive these behaviours. When you mandate something, it’s a big shift, it sends a message that it’s expected and therefore you need to comply unless there’s an exception,” she told the PA news agency.
“I think there are some people who feel quite comfortable still wearing one and don’t care what anybody else thinks, but there are others who do (care about others’ opinions), and so therefore I think just saying we recommend it but it’s not required isn’t strong enough. It just doesn’t really work,” says Prof Bauld.
If the government makes face coverings mandatory in England again, she suspects there will be certain groups who may feel “annoyed” and “let down”, but most people would be likely to comply.
“If you look at some of the evidence from previously in the pandemic, and also people’s attitudes, I think a lot of people will support this and just do it.
“So I don’t think you’re going to see rioting in the streets or protests the way you have, for example, against vaccine certification which people feel very strongly about, but there will be groups who will want to make an issue of this and will insist on not complying. But I don’t think that will be the majority.”