Public lacking clear, consistent Government guidance on face coverings in England, says BMA

by BMA media team

Press release from the BMA

Location: England
Published: Friday 17 July 2020

The BMA says Government measures and public guidance on face covering rules in England are unclear, inconsistent and are causing widespread confusion.

The doctors’ union and professional association warns that the Government is not being clear on what coverings to wear or where they should be worn. This follows mixed messages around whether the public should be wearing face coverings in takeaway food shops.

Official Government communications have also used images of people wearing inappropriate masks with valves, while some businesses, including hairdressers, are being advised to use visors or face shields in the place of an effective face covering.

It is vital, the BMA says, to emphasise that the primary purpose of wearing a face covering is to prevent droplets leaving the mouth or nose of someone who may be carrying and therefore potentially transmitting the virus to others, but who has no or minimal symptoms.

It is therefore not a protective strategy for the individual, but one for the population as a whole.

The BMA believes:

  • For the general public a cotton mask, covering the nose, mouth and chin, is suitable. This can then be washed and reused. Ideally these should be three layers thick and of tightly woven fabric.
  • Masks with exhalation valves should not be used, as they allow potentially infected air to be channelled out through the valve and are thus less effective.
  • Visors are likely to offer much less protection against viral transmission from the wearer to others and should not be worn in place of an effective face covering.1
  • People who are clinically extremely vulnerable should consider wearing a fluid-resistant surgical mask, as these are likely to offer greater protection to the wearer.2
  • The public should not wear medical grade respirators – these should be reserved for frontline healthcare workers.

The BMA is clear in its view that face coverings should be mandatory in all scenarios where 2-metre physical distancing cannot be maintained between people from different households or “bubbles”, and there are not other mitigating measures in place, such as plastic screens. This should be implemented immediately.

However, without such mandatory measures, the BMA urges the public to wear face coverings in these situations, and for businesses to encourage this.

Dr Peter English, BMA public health medicine committee chair, said:

“Everyone has their part to play in preventing the spread of this deadly virus, but people can only be expected to behave appropriately if they’ve been given clear, consistent guidance. So far, this has been lacking.

“First, we were told they were mandatory on public transport, but nowhere else. Then, shops but not other workplaces – and not for another week. And now, there is confusion around whether a takeaway is a shop or a restaurant – despite the fact that the virus is equally as infectious in either setting.

“Meanwhile, the Government advises using ineffective visors, and its own ministers are pictured wearing inappropriate masks or no coverings at all.

“The BMA is clear that face coverings should be worn in all situations where physical distancing is not possible, and the Government should equally be pressing this point home. Instead they are dragging their feet with sporadic and illogical policy announcements.

“The public needs clear, consistent measures, backed up with simple, easy-to-follow instructions. Without these, the virus will continue to spread, and we risk losing many, many more lives as a result.”


Notes to editors

The BMA is a trade union and professional association representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.

  1. Visors are intended to protect the eyes of the wearer, rather than prevent droplet transmission from the wearer.
  2. As per recommendation from the World Health Organisation.
  3. The BMA has produced an infographic and social media animation explaining what types of face covering are appropriate.