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Saturday, Feb 04, 2023

The best way to stay safe from Covid in England? Don't ditch the mask

The best way to stay safe from Covid in England? Don't ditch the mask

Boris Johnson’s easing of restrictions is in stark contrast to what other countries are doing to control Omicron
On Wednesday, Boris Johnson’s government announced that plan B measures for England, which were put in place in December, will be scrapped. This includes mandates on face coverings, which will no longer be compulsory in indoor public spaces from 27 January or for secondary school classrooms from 20 January. The Department for Education is likely to remove guidance on their use in school communal areas in the coming days.

This is in stark contrast to what other countries are doing in the midst of the Omicron pandemic – and let’s not forget, this is still a pandemic. With daily Covid-19 case numbers in the UK still above 100,000, and a daily average of more than 250 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, our situation is among the worst in the world. Though our case numbers are indeed falling, this may well be partly due to the measures imposed in plan B, such as wearing face masks and working from home. There is a risk that the removal of these measures could reverse this trend.

Scotland is mitigating against this risk by maintaining the face mask mandate when it removes most restrictions from Monday. The US, meanwhile, is an example of a country enacting more stringent measures in order to bring the pandemic under control. Next week, the Biden administration will make 400m N95 (FFP2) masks available for free in the largest deployment of PPE in US history.

We know that, when they fit well, these high-efficiency masks do an excellent job of protecting wearers and preventing the spread of infection. In fact, on 17 January, the UK Health Security Agency changed its guidance for healthcare workers so that FFP3 respirators (EU-certified masks) must be worn by staff when “caring for patients with a suspected or confirmed infection spread by the airborne route”. This is long overdue.

And yet when it comes the public, the government seems much happier to throw caution to the wind. For people in England, the use of face coverings – of any sort – is no longer required. This does not mean that the risk of transmitting Covid-19 or being infected by it has reduced. Omicron continues to be the most infectious variant of Covid-19.

While the mask mandate may have gone, and some people will joyously doff their masks, many will remain rightly concerned about Covid-19, the potential for getting long Covid and the effect that the lack of restrictions will have on the lives of vulnerable people. People will also be keen to avoid time off work isolating with Covid and recovering from the illness.

So how can you protect yourself when most people stop wearing masks? The best way is to wear a mask that is designed to protect the wearer: an FFP2 or FFP3 mask. These are available in pharmacies, supermarkets and online, but you may need to try a few to find one that fits the shape of your face. If you want to avoid exposing others to your exhaled breath, make sure you choose a valveless mask.

Although “disposable”, these masks can be reused until they break or become visibly unhygienic. I recommend using several in rotation, to allow them to “decontaminate” between uses. Masks with head straps will fit better and may last longer. Metal nose clips (as opposed to plastic ones) usually mould better to your nose, providing a closer fit – but unfortunately it can be hard to know before buying them which type of clip is used. While many industry-certified masks come as a standard size, smaller-sized masks are increasingly available.

Nondisposable masks (sometimes called elastomeric respirators, if they are made from rubber) are also available. While these may resemble gas masks, with external cartridges that hold the filters, manufacturers are now designing these for public use, with simple, replaceable FFP2 or FFP3 filters that slot into the plastic frame and look no more threatening than disposable high-efficiency masks.

The government says that it’s now up to us to assess our own risk and how we will mitigate it (although people are still advised to continue to wear face coverings in enclosed or crowded spaces and when meeting strangers). While we may not have choices about going to work or school, or how we get there, if we choose to, we can continue to use face masks to protect ourselves effectively. And don’t forget, anyone can have Covid … not just strangers.

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