The debate over whether people should wear face masks in public during the Covid-19 crisis has re-ignited again.
(Q) Why is it back on the agenda?
(A) It follows remarks by Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 envoy, who says people should get accustomed to a new reality of always wearing a facial covering.
(Q) Is he talking about after some severe lockdown restrictions have been eased?
(A) His idea is that if hairdressing salons, for instance, are allowed re-open they would be useful. Ireland will face dilemmas on how far restrictive measures should be relaxed after May 5 when this extension ends. So it’s worth discussing any suggestions that might make that easier and safer.
(Q) In what context was he speaking?
(A) He has made the suggestion on a number of broadcast media outlets. He says that the coronavirus will “stalk the human race” for some time.
The masks could provide a form of “reassurance” for people while we wait for a vaccine. The coronavirus could paralyse countries into a set of strict measures – but we don’t know when we will have a vaccine. We have to learn to live with Covid-19.
He pointed out the wearing of masks does not mean physical distancing or handwashing will be abandoned.
(Q) Is there not a shortage of face masks?
(A) He said they should be given to health workers first, and then to people who have the virus. For the wider population, it will not be possible to ensure everybody quickly can access the good masks, the N95 version, but they may have some form of facial protection.
(Q) What is the WHO advice on facial masks or facial protection?
(A) The WHO recently said that it remains the case that medical masks should be reserved for healthcare workers, not the general public.
They can be worn by people with the virus who have symptoms, and by carers of people who are infected. They may give the public a false sense of security, people put their hands to their face more to fix them and the covering can become contaminated.
(Q) What is the view of the Department of Health here?
(A) Dr Tony Holohan, chief medical officer, said the issue of the wearing of facial masks was discussed at a meeting of the National Public Health Emergency Team.
It decided that it would not recommend it on the grounds that it would give a person a false sense of security and they might be less inclined to practise physical distancing and hand washing.