So far, the official answer in the UK, for example, has been no on masks. Irrespective of the effectiveness of mask use in the community, mass buying by the public has created a shortage for healthcare workers. This puts healthcare workers at risk of getting COVID-19.
But emerging evidence is changing the balance of potential harms and benefits. We know that people are infectious very early after becoming unwell. As evidence has shown wearing masks does reduce the risk of infected people spreading the infection to others and so the government is now advising the use of face-covering in certain situations.
There are various organisations that have begun to emerge supporting the use of face masks Masks4All and several countries have now made it compulsory to do so.
There is enough evidence to endorse the use of face masks for short periods of time by vulnerable individuals when in transient higher risk situations – such as on public transport or visiting shops.
But with the current shortage of masks, we have to think carefully about who would benefit most from wearing them. Recent deaths in doctors and nurses remind us of the need to give these people priority.
“Although we can support vulnerable people who choose to wear masks to avoid infection, we want to remind everyone that the people who most need to wear masks, to protect us all, are healthcare workers.”
Wearing masks in public is most beneficial in situations where you can’t properly keep your distance from other people. Wearing masks on crowded public transport is likely to be beneficial – but won’t have any protective effect while walking through deserted streets or in the countryside.