NI’s Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Ian Young sets out the case for face coverings.
As many people as possible should wear a face covering in an indoor space where it is not possible to maintain 2m separation from other people. A face covering will protect others if the person wearing it is spreading the COVID virus. It will also protect the person wearing it if someone else nearby is spreading the virus. The benefit is greatest when everyone wears a face covering where appropriate.
How do face coverings work? When someone has COVID, they will breathe or cough the virus into the air in tiny droplets of water that we cannot see. These droplets will float in the air for a period of time and may be breathed in by nearby people. Many people with COVID are completely without symptoms – so any of us could be spreading the virus without knowing. Droplets will then fall onto nearby surfaces where the virus can survive for up to several days. Other people may get COVID if they touch these surfaces and then touch their face or mouth without washing their hands.
If someone has COVID and is wearing a face covering, most of the tiny droplets they breathe out become caught in the covering and do not enter the atmosphere or fall to nearby surfaces. Other people are less likely to breathe in droplets and virus is less likely to land on surfaces.
In addition, if a healthy person is wearing a covering they will breathe in fewer droplets from others and will also be less likely to touch their mouth or nose, reducing their risk of becoming infected from nearby people.
So, if both a person with COVID and healthy people nearby are wearing a face covering, the benefit is greatest.
Why are we recommending face coverings now? COVID is a new virus and we have learned more about the different routes by which it spreads over the last few months. As a result, there is now more and stronger evidence of the benefits of face coverings. In addition the recent relaxation of restrictions means than people are interacting more often and for longer periods in indoor spaces – so the benefits of face coverings now will be greater than they were two months ago.
What sort of face covering should we use? Any covering which goes over both the mouth and nose will provide some benefit, but in particular we recommend cloth face coverings with at least two or three layers of material and which can be washed and reused. Such coverings are widely available to buy and can also be made at home. It is important to learn how to put a covering on, take it off and wash and reuse it safely.
What about people who can’t wear a face covering? We would like as many people as possible to wear a covering, to protect everyone from the virus and to reduce the risks of any further lockdowns. Hopefully, at least 80% of people will be able to do so. However, some people because of medical or other reasons will not be able to wear a covering, and it is important that we recognise and respect that, so that individuals who cannot wear face coverings do not feel victimised in any way.
Everyone has a role to play to protect against COVID. Wearing a face covering in indoor spaces is one aspect of that. However, a face covering is not a substitute for other measures – hand hygiene, maintaining 2m separation and other measures are just as important as ever.
Protect others, protect yourself – wear a face covering to do that.
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