Face coverings – why England should follow Scotland’s example

by Peter English

Wearing masks is a good way to avoid a second spike, says one consultant

Location: Scotland England
Last reviewed: 6 July 2020
public health covid

The first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has taken another major decision that puts Scotland at variance with England over COVID-19.

Face coverings are already compulsory on public transport in Scotland and from 10 July they will be mandatory in all shops. But she’s urged people not to wait until then but to ‘get into the habit now'.

In the face of all the scientific evidence, the Scottish government’s rational, sensible and balanced response to the continuing rise in COVID-19 infections, on behalf of its citizens, is laudable. Put bluntly, it will save lives and the first minister knows this. So why is the Westminster government not leading this charge on behalf of its citizens? Why is it dragging its feet?

As a doctor working in South East England and an expert in Public Health, I fear that unless England takes similar steps – and quickly – we are almost inviting a second peak in infection in the next few months. We must do all we can to avoid the further spread and local outbreaks, such as the one in Leicester which has made it abundantly clear that the infection is still circulating in our communities.

The latest figures show that 25,000 people – that’s one in 2,200 in the population – is infected and this is set to continue unless we take urgent action, such as the mandating of face coverings.

The Government’s decision to move from two metre physical distancing to 'one metre plus' in England, was designed to help society and the economy back on its feet. But the crucial caveat to this is that this will work only if people wear face coverings in public places. Perhaps that’s what the 'plus' was supposed to stand for. That’s why the BMA is calling for face coverings to be worn by the public indoors and when we can’t socially distance now as a matter of course across England.

The evidence is clear. Face coverings reduce the threat of the virus being passed on. There is a risk that anyone who has the virus, or is a carrier, but does not wear a face covering, can transmit the virus to another person. If a carrier wears a covering, the likelihood of this happening decreases significantly. So, it makes absolute sense that, if we want to get this pandemic under control, face masks have to be the vanguard.

It’s already mandatory to wear coverings on public transport but I believe the Westminster Government needs to step this up and mandate the public to wear face coverings and make sure there is a good supply of them.

The domestic production of these to meet demand would also aid the nation’s economy in its time of great need.

It’s understandable that people, frustrated by the lock-down want to return to a more ‘normal’ life with family, friends and work colleagues. But it’s only with face coverings that we can do this. We cannot pretend that the spectre of COVID-19 is not going to be with us for some time.

This new ‘normal’ must be different. To keep the population safe, secure and sustained through the pandemic the Government has follow the Scottish example and mandate face coverings.

Peter English, chair of the BMA public health medicine committee and consultant in communicable disease control