Compulsory public face masks could 'jeopardise' NHS supply

21 April 2020, 08:51

Masks do not have to be worn in public as in some other countries
Masks do not have to be worn in public as in some other countries. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

The NHS's supply of face masks could be jeopardised if the Government begins advising the public to wear them, hospital bosses have warned.

The Government's scientific advisers are reviewing the use of face masks in public, while the World Health Organisation has said there is no evidence to support their use by the general population.

But the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals and NHS trusts in England, has warned the impact of any new rules on the wearing of masks in public could impact on NHS supply.

In a statement, Chris Hopson said: "Fluid repellent masks for health and care staff are key to safety and to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

"Securing the supply of masks, when there is huge global demand, is crucial. This must be a key consideration for Government.

"There needs to be clear evidence that wearing masks, along with other measures, will deliver significant enough benefits to take us out of lockdown to potentially jeopardise NHS mask supply."

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Simon Clarke, minister of state for regional growth and local government, said he said he shares the "frustration" of NHS providers and the general public around issues with PPE supply.

But he said the Government is confident they can get the right levels of supply to hospitals and key public-sector workers.

He said: "It is not straightforward, precisely because clearly this is an unprecedented challenge, and however much we have been able to put out, and it is a huge quantity, the demand is incredible."

Mr Clarke was asked about a possible change in advice on the general public wearing face masks.

He said: "At this point we do not have a clear scientific steer that it would be right to broaden this to the general population and we would obviously bear in mind the representations from NHS providers about the need to prioritise supply to where it can do the most good."

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves said the shortage of personal protective equipment is a "disgrace" as she urged the Government to use smaller UK manufacturers to source items.

She said she had been "inundated" with manufacturers who have contacted the Government offering to make PPE but have heard nothing back.

"There are many, many businesses around the country who have perhaps furloughed workers but have the capability and the capacity and the skills to make this personal protective equipment and clothing - particularly the gowns - but have not heard back from the Government.

"Some of them are doing it on an ad-hoc basis for local hospitals or care homes, but this needs to be systematic - it needs to be a national effort, using all of our manufacturing and textile capacity and capability to ensure that the doctors and nurses and care workers ... have that equipment and clothing that they need."

She said there had been "too much focus" on importing PPE from overseas and that there had not been enough focus on bringing smaller suppliers into the national effort.

"It is a disgrace that we've got people working on the frontline who aren't properly protected and government's first and foremost responsibility is to protect its citizens, and this now is our main priority."

WHO guidance issued earlier this month acknowledged that the virus could be passed on by people who are not yet symptomatic, but it said: "Current evidence suggests that most disease is transmitted by symptomatic, laboratory confirmed cases.

"There is currently no evidence that wearing a mask [whether medical or other types] by healthy persons in the wider community setting, including universal community masking, can prevent them from infection with respiratory viruses."

It warned that the use of masks by the public can create a "false sense of security" and lead to people ignoring other protective measures, such as hand hygiene and physical distancing.

Masks can even be a source of infection when not used correctly, the WHO added.