Coronavirus: Boris Johnson says masks, face coverings will be ‘useful’

  • UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has given the clearest indication yet that British people will probably be told to cover their faces in public.
  • “As part of coming out of the lockdown, I do think face coverings will be useful,” he said on Thursday.
  • The UK prime minister’s remarks appeared to contradict Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who this week said there was only “weak science” supporting the use of masks during the coronavirus crisis.
  • Johnson’s government is yet to decide whether to formally advise the wearing of masks, and one of Johnson’s representatives on Friday insisted that the prime minister hadn’t preempted the decision.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Boris Johnson has suggested that people should wear face masks when they return to work, just days after UK government ministers advised against the wearing of face coverings during the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK prime minister said on Thursday that masks would be “useful” in terms of slowing the spread of the coronavirus, and said they would give people “confidence” to return to their workplaces.

“I do think face coverings will be useful,” Johnson said at Thursday’s Downing Street briefing.

“What I think SAGE [the government’s science advisory committee] is saying, what I certainly agree with, is that as part of coming out of the lockdown, I do think face coverings will be useful.

“Both for epidemiological reasons but, also, for giving people confidence that they can go back to work.

“You’re going to be hearing more about that and that kind of thing next week.”

The UK government is in the process of deciding whether to formally recommend the use of masks and face coverings. Johnson’s spokesperson on Friday insisted that his comments on Thursday did not pre-empt that decision.

“What the PM was doing was answering a question and pointing out what the advice from experts says,” they said.

“Ministers are still considering how we move forwards with face covering in terms of the precise advice we give to the public. And once and that’s ready we’ll announce it.

“I don’t think the PM was pre-empting the decision — he was just answering a question.”

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They added: “The advice that we have received based on the science shows a weak but positive effect in reducing transmission of coronavirus from members of the public where social distancing isn’t possible.

“What ministers need to consider is how best to produce advice on next steps, and that work is still ongoing.”

Scotland has already advised people to wear face coverings

london coronavirus

A couple wearing surgical masks outside the Embankment tube station on March 4 in London.

Getty Images

Johnson’s remarks came as he revealed that the UK was past the peak of the coronavirus outbreak and pledged next week to set out a “comprehensive plan” on how he would start to reopen the economy, workplaces, and schools. 

While the UK government has not yet officially advised the general public to wear masks amid the coronavirus outbreak, many people in the UK have started to wear them and other face coverings. In Asia, since the 2002 SARS outbreak, many commuters wear masks on a daily basis to slow the spread of viral infections.

And the prime minister’s comments comes just two days after Michael Gove, Johnson’s Cabinet Office minister, suggested that face masks could make people “complacent” about the threat of the coronavirus.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, also said this week that there was only “weak science” supporting the Scottish government’s decision last week to recommend the wearing of masks.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, recommended that Scots wear masks in enclosed spaces where social distancing is hard to enforce.

The prime minister’s comments also appear to contradict comments made by Professor Angela McLean, a scientific advisor on SAGE committee, at Tuesday’s Downing Street briefing on the coronavirus.

She said there was “weak evidence of a small effect” that wearing a mask would be an effective means of preventing the spread of the virus.

“The answer is clear that the evidence is weak and the effect is small, and we have passed that on to our colleagues in Government with which to make a decision,” she said.


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