Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing Street
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has given the clearest indication yet that British people will probably be told to cover their faces in at least some public places.
"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.
Face coverings are meant to help keep infected people from spreading the virus; their use alone is not considered effective in preventing people from catching the virus should they come in contact with it, so even places like the US that have recommended them have still urged people to maintain social distancing.
UK Prime Minister 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.
Johnson on Thursday said that face coverings would be "useful" in terms of slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus and that they would give people "confidence" to return to their workplaces.
"What I think SAGE 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," he said at Thursday's Downing Street briefing, referring to the government's science advisory committee.
"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 still deciding whether to formally recommend the use of masks or face coverings in public. A representative for Johnson on Friday insisted that his comments on Thursday did not preempt that decision.
"What the PM was doing was answering a question and pointing out what the advice from experts says," the person 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 preempting the decision — he was just answering a question."
The person 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
Johnson's remarks came as he declared the UK to be past the peak of its 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 protect against pollution.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in mid-April began recommending that people cover their faces in crowded public areas to try to slow the virus' spread. It had resisted issuing such guidance out of fears that face coverings would give people a false sense of security that might discourage social distancing and also that the public would end up competing with hospitals for surgical masks and N95 respirators, which are in short supply around the world.
Face coverings are meant to help keep infected people from spreading the virus; their use alone is not considered effective in preventing someone from catching the virus should they come in contact with it, so the CDC has still urged people to maintain social distancing and wash their hands frequently.
Johnson's comments came just two days after his Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, suggested that face masks could make people "complacent" about the threat of the coronavirus.
Matt Hancock, the UK 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 Angela McLean, a scientific adviser on the 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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