Downing Street will launch an information campaign to tell the public in England that face coverings should cover both the nose and the mouth if they are to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Amid criticism over the more lax regime in England, where face coverings are mandatory on public transport but merely advised in other settings, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman stressed that they are only effective if they cover the wearer’s nose.
“Covid-19 is a respiratory disease. If someone has the virus, droplets can leave the nose and mouth and infect others when someone breathes, speaks, sneezes, laughs or coughs. Therefore, a face covering should cover both the nose and mouth to reduce the spread of coronavirus droplets, helping to protect others,” he said.
People over 60 or with health issues should wear a medical-grade mask when they are out and cannot socially distance, according to new guidance from the World Health Organization, while all others should wear a three-layer fabric mask.
The WHO guidance, announced on 5 June, is a result of research commissioned by the organisation. It is still unknown whether the wearers of masks are protected, say its experts, but the new design it advocates does give protection to other people if properly used.
The WHO says masks should be made of three layers – with cotton closest to the face, followed by a polypropylene layer and then a synthetic layer that is fluid-resistant. These are no substitute for physical distancing and hand hygiene, it says, but should be worn in situations where distancing is difficult, such as on public transport and at mass demonstrations.
The WHO has been reluctant to commit to recommending face coverings, firstly because the evidence on whether they offer any protection to the public is limited and – more importantly – because it was afraid it would lead to shortages of medical-grade masks for health workers.
Sarah Boseley Health editor
Asked whether the government would be carrying out a public information campaign to make that clear, he said: “It is a message which we will be keen to emphasise in coming days, yes.”
In Scotland, face coverings are becoming mandatory in shops from 10 July. Unlike Johnson, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has appeared in public wearing a mask.
Neither the prime minister nor the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, wore masks when they visited retailers to mark their reopening.
The government guidance says: “If you can, you should wear a face covering in other enclosed public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible and where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet. This is most relevant for short periods indoors in crowded areas.”
Johnson has been criticised for delaying the the advice to wear face coverings, when they were already mandatory in several other countries.
The Royal Society on Tuesday urged the public to wear a face covering whenever they leave the house, after two studies were published that underlined their benefits in helping to limit the spread of Covid-19.
Its president, Venki Ramakrishnan, said: “The UK is way behind many countries in terms of wearing masks and clear policies and guidelines about mask wearing for the public. The public have taken to handwashing and distancing but remain sceptical about face coverings.”
He added: “People may rightly ask why you have to wear a mask on a train but not in a shop. If guidance is inconsistent people will follow their own preferences.”
According to one of the new papers, published jointly by the British Academy and the Royal Society, uptake of masks in the UK in late April was around 25%, compared with 83.4% in Italy, 65.8% in the United States and 63.8% in Spain.