COVID-19 and face masks/coverings

This article explains how to learn guidance and regulations of the use of face coverings in Northern Ireland and explores some of the available evidence regarding their use. 

What is the guidance on face coverings in Northern Ireland?

The Northern Ireland Executive announced that the use of face coverings in certain indoor settings would become mandatory from 10 August 2020.

The NI Direct website publishes the latest guidance and regulations for the use of face coverings in Northern Ireland.

Separate policies for the use of face coverings in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland are available. Policies on face coverings in these and other jurisdictions are reviewed on a regular basis and current advice is subject to change.The World Health Organisation (WHO) also publishes advice on mask use, along with further guidance.

Face masks or face coverings?

There is a difference.

Medical face masks include respirator and surgical masks. These are considered to be PPE (personal protective equipment), and are primarily for use in health and social care settings and some specific work environments.

The general public, in contrast, are advised to wear face coverings. These are most commonly made out of cloth and cover the nose and mouth. They can be secured to the head with ties or straps. They may be manufactured or home made.

To be effective, face coverings need to be worn appropriately. The Irish government has produced guidelines about the proper use of face coverings to prevent cross-contamination; this advice is echoed in a shorter document from the UK government.

Are face coverings effective in protecting against COVID-19?

The Royal Society and The British Academy published a joint review of the science of the effectiveness of different face mask types and coverings and behavioural adherence in June 2020. It found:

    • Cloth face coverings are effective in reducing source virus transmission, i.e., outward protection of others, when they are of optimal material and construction.
    • Socio-behavioural factors are vital to understanding public adherence to wearing face masks and coverings.
    • Face masks and coverings cannot be seen in isolation but are part of ‘policy packages’ and it is imperative to review interrelated interventions, such as hand hygiene, sanitizers and social distancing when maintaining the 2 metre or 1 metre+ distancing rule is not possible.
    • Consistent and effective public messaging is vital to public adherence of wearing face masks and coverings. Conflicting policy advice generates confusion and lack of compliance.

A study of over 300,000 people in the US found that those communities with high reported mask wearing and physical distancing had the highest control in reducing COVID-19 transmission.

Similarly, a study of nearly 200,000 people in the US found that where people responded by saying that they “always” use a face mask, there was a 62% reduced risk of predicted COVID-19, even among individuals living in a community with poor social distancing.

A European Centre for Disease and Control (ECDC) video illustrates how wearing a face covering can slow the spread of COVID-19. The ECDC says that the use of face coverings should complement other measures, such as physical distancing, staying at home when ill, teleworking when possible, respiratory etiquette, good hand hygiene, and avoiding touching the face, nose, eyes, and mouth.

This article was first published on 15 June 2020 and was updated in January 2021.


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