THE UK will build a stockpile of face masks for Brits to wear while shopping and using public transport, it was announced yesterday.
After weeks of debate and speculation other whether members of the public will be asked to wear face coverings, officials have now revealed their plans.
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Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove announced the move after Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recommended that people use scarves and t-shirts to cover up.
Breaking ranks with the Government's official line on masks, she yesterday said the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had concluded a face covering would probably help to slow the spread of the virus in confined spaces, like on trains.
Ministers are expected to announce their official decision on the matter within days.
But yesterday, Mr Gove said a "domestic effort" has been launched to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Masks will be used to "limit the droplets that each of us might be responsible for", he said.
He told the House of Commons the coverings won't be "high-spec surgical face masks" required by frontline workers.
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The Telegraph reports that Whitehall insiders had wanted to delay the announcement over its guidance for England until enough masks have been stockpiled.
And Health Secretary Matt Hancock has insisted face coverings only offer "weak" protection at best.
But Ms Sturgeon said the main benefit of cloth coverings isn't to protect the wearer, but instead to prevent asymptomatic carriers who don't yet realise they have the virus from transmitting it.
Mr Hancock told last night's Downing Street press briefing that the most important thing is to continue with social distancing.
He was backed by deputy chief scientific adviser Dame Angela McLean, who said there is "weak evidence of a small effect" of masks preventing carriers from passing on the virus.
EXPERTS DIVIDED ON FACE COVERINGS
The chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Professor Martin Marshall, said: "If (people) are coughing and spluttering then it makes complete sense to wear masks in order to protect other people."
He told the BBC's Today programme: "I think the guidance that we're expecting to hear is that the wearing of face masks is a voluntary activity, not mandated, and it certainly makes a lot of sense to focus limited resources that we have at the moment on those who have greatest need and that's the health professionals."
There has been broad disagreement about the potential benefits – last week, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the evidence on face masks "has always been quite variable, quite weak and difficult to know".
FEARS FOR SUPPLIES OF MEDICAL MASKS
Yesterday, Chris Hopson, chief executive of the hospitals group NHS providers, told The Times he fears members of the public will rush to buy medical-grade masks, which are much needed by frontline medics.
He said: "There is bound to be a question in some people's minds about what form of face covering provides the greatest protection.
"The scientific evidence is clear – the fluid repellent surgical masks worn by healthcare workers offer greater protection because of the significantly smaller pore sizes in the material they use.
"It therefore seems likely that some people will try to purchase these masks.
"This is why it's vital that the threat to this supply is carefully assessed before the government makes decisions."
Coronavirus deaths have jumped to more than 21,600 in hospitals after 586 more people died.
Positive cases have also risen by 3,996 to 161,145 as Britain grapples with week six of drastic lockdown measures.
But it is understood that when deaths outside hospitals are counted, the true toll will be more than 32,000.
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