BRITS could soon be ordered to wear a face mask in public after new evidence prompted officials to consider a major U-turn.
World Health Organisation advisors will today examine research that suggests their wider use does help to combat coronavirus.
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The review may lead the WHO and the UK government to rewrite existing guidelines, which only recommend their use in limited circumstances.
The NHS has until now maintained there is “very little evidence” of their benefit outside of hospital but masks are compulsory in some countries.
Prof David Heymann, who chairs the advisory group, said new data from Hong Kong and the USA had led to the review.
The infectious diseases expert, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said there is “no preconceived decision”.
And he believes firms could meet any resulting increase in demand despite current shortages for healthcare workers.
Prof Heymann added: “There is right now a debate about the usefulness of masks because Hong Kong has provided some evidence that masks may be useful in protecting individuals from infection.
“It’s not clear yet whether or not that’s true.
“The WHO, the group that I work with, is debating that with a group of experts from around the world to understand whether there is evidence which would call for a change in what WHO is recommending.”
His Strategic and Technical Advisory Group for Infectious Hazards will ensure healthcare workers are prioritised.
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But he added: “There is a private sector healthy enough to begin producing those masks in quantities necessary.”
Some experts have warned there is an increased risk of infection if people do not use face masks correctly or take care when removing them.
Others have said they can protect people from catching the virus and stop infected people from passing it on.
Prof Benjamin Cowling, from Hong Kong University, said: “If face masks are used on a lot of people in crowded areas, I think it would have some effect on public transmission, and at the moment we’re looking for every small measure we can to reduce transmission - it adds up.”
The WHO has said people only need to wear masks if they are caring for someone with Covid-19, or if they themselves are coughing or sneezing.
Dr Mike Ryan, from the WHO, warned against the widespread use of masks on Monday.
He said: “There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit.
“In fact, there's some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly.
Warning about online coronavirus tests
Prof Heymann said people should be cautious about buying coronavirus tests online - including one advertised on Facebook for £39.
He warned tests may be unreliable and even if they show somebody has been infected and recovered their immunity may not last for long.
He added: “It is a free world, anybody can buy what they want to buy and use it.
“But you need to think twice as to whether it is a wise investment for the purposes that you want the test for.”
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“There also is the issue that we have a massive global shortage.
“Right now the people most at risk from this virus are frontline health workers who are exposed to the virus every second of every day.
“The thought of them not having masks is horrific.”