Wearing face masks essentially pointless from Monday, COVID expert warns

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A woman wearing a face mask among a crowd of pedestrians on Oxford Street, London, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson warns that coronavirus infections will rise as he prepared to announce the lifting of restrictions from July 19. Picture date: Monday July 12, 2021.
A woman wearing a face mask among a crowd of pedestrians on Oxford Street, London, on Monday. (PA)

Wearing a face mask “probably won’t do any good” after England's coronavirus lockdown ends on Monday because not enough people will continue to do so, an expert has warned.

Boris Johnson has confirmed that the legal requirement for face coverings will end on 19 July as part of the country’s unlocking.

Instead, he urged people to exercise “personal responsibility” in continuing to wear masks in “crowded and enclosed spaces”.

Read more: Nightclubs could be forced to ask customers for vaccine passports

One of the government’s top advisers has said that if wearing face masks isn’t compulsory then people won’t be protected as everyone must do it for it to work.

Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: “I personally will wear a mask to protect other people.”

Watch: Boris Johnson stresses 'pandemic is not over' as he confirms 19 July unlocking

Prof Medley, chairman of the Sage modelling subgroup Spi-M, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it’s quite a reasonable thing to do.

“It doesn’t have a huge imposition in terms of economic impact or in terms of freedom, and I think there is evidence to suggest it does good, but only if everybody does it.

“So I think that, without the mandation, then we end up with a situation where even if the majority of people, let’s say 70% of people wear a mask, will that actually do any good because of the 30% who don’t? I think that is something which still needs to be determined and discussed.

“I understand the government’s reluctance to actually mandate it. On the other hand, if it’s not mandated it probably won’t do any good.”

The prime minister struck a more cautious note on Monday ahead of the unlocking than he had done the previous week.

He said: “We will stick to our plan to lift legal restrictions and to lift social distancing, but we expect and recommend that people wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces where you come into contact with those you don’t normally meet, such as on public transport.”

Last week, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said he would continue to wear a face mask after 19 July in a crowded indoor area when required to do so by a “competent authority” or if asked by someone who felt uncomfortable.

On Monday, scientists advising the government warned that the 19 July unlocking could lead to a new wave of infections that may result in more than 115,800 deaths in a year.

People wearing face masks among crowds of pedestrians in Covent Garden, London. Rumours were abound in the Sunday newspapers that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is due to update the nation this week on plans for unlocking, is due to scrap social distancing and mask-wearing requirements on so-called
Wearing face masks will no longer be a legal requirement in England from 19 July. (PA)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson seen leaving Downing Street to attend the PMQ's (Prime Ministers Questions) in London. (Photo by James Warren / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
Boris Johnson wearing a face mask outside Downing Street. (PA)

On Tuesday, Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said he was concerned that the easing was going ahead despite rising infections.

“It is a big risk. It really depends on how lucky you feel as an individual whether you are prepared to go with the risk of opening up,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One.

“Personally, my very strong advice would be that really we shouldn’t be doing anything at the moment which would accelerate the rising case numbers.”

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Prof Openshaw said he was particularly concerned about the high rate of infection among young people in their late teens and 20s.

“With this rate of escalation, this is inevitably going to spill over into others who haven’t been vaccinated or haven’t responded to vaccines because they are vulnerable and immuno-suppressed,” he said.

“For those people, there is an inevitability that there will be an increase in hospitalisations and deaths.”

Watch: Boris Johnson and Chris Whitty on when they will wear a face mask

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