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Face Mask Policies

Based on weak evidence that face masks give personal and public protection, some policy makers want to make wearing face masks compulsory.
A 3-M respirator face mask of the type used by tradespeople to protect from dust and particles.

Wearing face masks has risen up the political agenda in many countries, with considerable disagreement on how to interpret the evidence.

On 28th April 2020 Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland gave a press conference that included the following:

The second issue I want to address relates to face coverings, an issue which has attracted lots of attention recently.
I want to stress at the outset that I am talking here about face coverings made of cloth or other textiles, such as a scarf. I am not talking about medical grade face masks that health and social care workers wear.
The guidance … recognises that there may be some benefit in wearing a face covering if you leave the house and enter an enclosed space where you will come into contact with multiple people and safe social distancing is difficult – for example on public transport or in shops. … To be clear the benefit comes mainly in cases where someone has the virus but isn’t aware of that because they are not experiencing symptoms and therefore not isolating completely – so wearing a face covering in these circumstances may reduce the chance of that person transmitting the virus to others.
The Scottish Government is now recommending the use of face coverings in these limited circumstances as a precautionary measure. Given that the evidence is relatively weak, we are not at this stage making this mandatory or suggesting that it will be enforced, though we will keep that under review.
The guidance states that there is no evidence at this stage to suggest that there are benefits to wearing a face covering outside, except in unavoidably crowded situations. [1]
This clearly states that, although the evidence is weak, the Scottish Government’s policy is to recommend wearing faces masks. The British Minister of Health, Matt Hancock, at a Government briefing on 28th April, concurred that there is weak evidence to support wearing face masks but did not agree that wearing masks should be recommended:
On face masks, we are guided by the science and the Government position hasn’t changed. … not least because the most important thing people can do is the social distancing as opposed to the weak science on face masks. There is very clear science on social distancing and the importance of it, so that is our absolute priority in terms of the message to the public.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) met on Tuesday 28th April to discuss the latest evidence on the pandemic, with their findings on masks now in the hands of ministers. Government scientific adviser Dame Angela McLean said:
The recommendation from Sage is completely clear, which is there is weak evidence of a small effect in which a face mask can prevent a source of infection going from somebody who is infected to the people around them.” [2]
On being told that the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, had ruled out the imposition of wearing face masks the Mayor of London simply said
“he’s wrong”. The Mayor has spoken to “experts around the world” on the viability of face coverings to prevent disease and he’s received an overwhelming response backing up the claim. “the government misinterprets advice it gets from scientific and medical experts and this has led to the current stance on face masks. … Wearing a non surgical facial covering is the most unselfish thing you can do”. [3]

France will make face masks compulsory on public transport and in secondary schools when it starts easing its coronavirus lockdown on 11 May, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has said. [4]

4th June 2020 – UK Policy Changes

On 4th June 2020 the UK Government changed its policy on face mask. Those using public transport in London from 15th June will be required to use face masks. [5]

What would your policy be?

In the context of all this uncertainty and disagreement what would your policy be? To make this decision it is necessary to marshal the facts and opinions:

  • the WHO is against making masks compulsory
  • The WHO says there is little evidence in favour of mask wearing
  • Scotland’s First Minister thinks the evidence is strong enough for action
  • The British Government is against any action
  • The Mayor of London is in favour of making mask-wearing compulsory.
  • France requires masks on public transport & secondary school in May.

What is your view? The next step is poll where you can express your opinion on whether wearing mask should be encourage or required, or if you there should be no policy.


[1] Nicola Sturgeon, ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister’s speech 28 April 2020’

[2] Matt Honeycombe-Foster and John Johnston ‘Matt Hancock says “no change” in advice on coronavirus masks after Nicola Sturgeon tells Scots to wear face coverings’, 28 April 2020.

[3] James O’Brien, ‘Sadiq Khan criticises Matt Hancock’s face mask advice – “He’s wrong” ‘, 24 April 2020, 13:05. LBC [Leading Britains Conversation]

[4] BBC, ‘Coronavirus: France mandates masks for schools and transport’, 28th April 2020.

[5] Department for Transport and The Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP, ‘Face coverings to become mandatory on public transport,’ 4 June 2020,

© UNESCO UniTwin CS-DC & The Open University
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