Refusing to wear a mask in public during the Covid-19 epidemic should become as socially unacceptable as drink-driving or not wearing a seatbelt, the president of the Royal Society has said.
He spoke as new research emerges suggesting the UK’s uptake of the practice is way behind that of other countries and that face coverings can protect the wearer as well as people around them.
Venki Ramakrishnan called for everyone to be required to wear a mask in all indoor public settings, rather than only on public transport, and criticised confused messaging from the government.
The head of the UK’s national academy of sciences spoke as two reports explored the effectiveness of masks. One, which updates work carried out by Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (DELVE), a multi-disciplinary group convened by the Royal Society, uncovered evidence that they could reduce the risk of transmission, providing benefits to the wearer as well as people around them.
The other by the Royal Society’s Science in Emergencies Tasking Covid-19 group, published jointly by the British Academy and the Royal Society, highlighted how far the UK is trailing behind other countries.
The research suggested that, in late April, uptake of mask-wearing in the UK was around 25%, compared to 83.4% in Italy, 65.8% in the United States and 63.8% in Spain, according to the Royal Society.
Ramakrishnan said: “Wearing a mask did not bother our Italian, French or Spanish neighbours; none of whom were used to wearing one before the pandemic, yet now do so routinely.
“So just treat it as another item of clothing that is part of the new normal and wear it whenever you cannot socially distance safely. It is the right thing to do, and a small price to pay, to help keep infections down and the economy open in the pandemic.”
Ramakrishnan added that many people were even ignoring the requirement to wear masks on public transport.
“The message has not been clear enough, so perhaps people do not really understand the benefits or are not convinced of them. Whatever the reasons, we need to overcome our reservations and wear face coverings whenever we are around others in public.
“It used to be quite normal to have quite a few drinks and drive home, and it also used to be normal to drive without seatbelts. Today, both of those would be considered antisocial, and not wearing face coverings in public should be regarded in the same way.
“If all of us wear one, we protect each other and thereby ourselves, reducing transmission. We lower the chances of future surges and lockdowns which are economically and psychologically disruptive, and we increase the chance of eliminating the virus. Not doing so increases the risk for everyone, from NHS workers to your grandmother.”
Last month both the World Health Organisation and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US issued updated guidance recommending that everyone wear face masks in public areas where there is a risk of transmission of Covid-19, to help reduce the spread of the disease.