Face Masks

Ministers “Haven’t Ruled Out” Ending Mask-Wearing Requirements on June 21st, Says Matt Hancock

Sky News presenter Stephen Dixon seemed desperate to pull a sliver of positive news out of Matt Hancock in an interview this morning. Discussing the rules on mask-wearing, the Health Secretary said: “In general settings, we’re keeping the rules on masks as they are for this step [of the “roadmap” out of lockdown, beginning on May 17th] outside of schools.” Hancock claimed that “the cost of [mask-wearing]… is really, really small”, though he failed to address the concerns raised in a recent peer-reviewed study in the scientific journal Water Research that “the toxicity of some of the chemicals found and the postulated risks of the rest of the present particles and molecules, raises the question of whether disposable plastic face masks are safe to be used on a daily basis”. He clarified that, for now, the rules “will be staying the same”.

“So there’s a possibility at least that the mask rule… could go in June,” Stephen asked. “We haven’t ruled that out,” Hancock returned – but it turns out that much else still hasn’t been ruled out.

We haven’t ruled that out when it comes to where we end up on social distancing rules and anything to do with certification domestically – for instance for large events. Whether that goes ahead… will all be set out ahead of step four [of the “roadmap”]… not before June 21st.

Given the extent to which the Health Secretary talked about face masks before being asked about dates, it seems as if the decision has already been made (at least privately) that mask mandates will remain in place beyond the “end” of lockdown, as per previous reports.

In the interview, quoted on the Sky News website, Hancock also discussed the updated rules on hugging.

We will be changing the rules to be far more about people taking personal responsibility, exercising common sense according to their circumstances.

We will set out really clearly the risks. People understand the risks – we know that – and we’ll make that very, very plain and then people can exercise their own personal responsibility.

… Grandparents, sometimes for the first time in over a year, will be able to be close to their grandchildren, but taking into account the individual risk of catching this disease which differs according to circumstances.

Worth reading in full.

Face Mask Requirement in Secondary Schools Expected to End on May 17th

After being urged not to “pander” to the pro-mask teaching unions, the Prime Minister is expected to stick to his plan to end the face mask requirement in secondary school classes when the next step of the Government’s “roadmap” out of lockdown comes into force. Mask-wearing will, however, continue to be encouraged in school corridors. The Telegraph has the story.

The Prime Minister will confirm that the Government guidance is changing from May 17th, when England moves into stage three of the reopening roadmap, according to multiple senior Whitehall sources.

Officials at the Department for Education are already drafting the new guidance, which will drop the recommendation that English secondary school pupils should wear face masks in class, while still encouraging their use in corridors.

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, told the Telegraph that the success of the vaccine rollout and the current low level of Covid cases in schools had paved the way for the move.

“As infection rates continue to decline and our vaccination programme rolls out successfully, we plan to remove the requirement for face coverings in the classroom at step three of the roadmap,” he said.

However, on Thursday night education trade unions – which have been pushing to keep masks in classrooms into the summer – threatened to defy the change.

Kevin Courtney, the Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said he would stick by teachers who still wanted pupils to wear masks, adding the coverings remained in place as a “precautionary measure”.

The Government guidance is only advisory rather than backed by law, meaning teachers will retain some autonomy about what to do in the classroom.

Meanwhile across the rest of society, rules on mask wearing are expected to stay in place even past the “end” of lockdown in June.

The Telegraph report is worth reading in full.

“The Toxicity of Some of the Chemicals Found Raises the Question of Whether Face Masks are Safe to be Used on a Daily Basis” – Study

A new peer-reviewed study in the scientific journal Water Research has called for a full investigation into face masks as it raises serious questions about their safety for daily use and their impact on the environment.

The study, “An investigation into the leaching of micro and nano particles and chemical pollutants from disposable face masks – linked to the COVID-19 pandemic“, investigated the impact of disposable plastic facemasks (DPFs) on the environment by submerging masks from seven different manufacturers in water then testing the water for chemicals. The researchers found lead, cadmium, antimony and various plastic and organic substances in the water. They expressed concerns about the contribution disposable face masks are making to the world’s plastic problem.

While the focus of the study was on the impact on the environment, the authors were clear about the implications of their findings for the safety of masks for public health. They write: “The toxicity of some of the chemicals found and the postulated risks of the rest of the present particles and molecules, raises the question of whether DPFs are safe to be used on a daily basis and what consequences are to be expected after their disposal into the environment.”

The problems arise from both the toxicity of the chemicals present and how easily they detach from the mask. The authors call for a full investigation into the risks to the environment and public health.

There is a concerning amount of evidence that suggests that DPFs waste can potentially have a substantial environmental impact by releasing pollutants simply by exposing them to water. DPFs release small physical pollutants such as micro and nano size particles; mainly consistent with plastic fibres and silicate grains, which are well documented to have adverse effects on the environment and public health. In addition to the physical particles, harmful chemicals such as heavy metals (lead, cadmium and antimony), and organic pollutants are also readily released from the DPFs when submerged in water. Many of these toxic pollutants have bio-accumulative properties when released into the environment and this research shows that DPFs could be one of the main sources of these environmental contaminants during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. It is, therefore, imperative that stricter regulations need to be enforced during manufacturing and disposal/recycling of DPFs to minimise the environmental impact of DPFs.

Secondary to environmental concerns, there is a need to understand the impact of such particle leaching on public health, as all DPFs released micro/nano particles and heavy metals to the water during our investigation. One of the main concerns with these particles is that they were easily detached from face masks and leached into the water with no agitation, which suggests that these particles are mechanically unstable and readily available to be detached. Therefore, a full investigation is necessary to determine the quantities and potential impacts of these particles leaching into the environment, and the levels being inhaled by users during normal breathing. This is a significant concern, especially for health care professionals, key workers, and children who are mandated to wear masks for large proportions of the working or school day (6–12 hours).

The full article is behind a paywall but the abstract is publicly available and can be found here.

Looks like the makings of another public health calamity with the potential for some very expensive litigation. If I was in Government, given how weak the evidence is for their effectiveness, I’d be looking at phasing face masks out round about now.

Life Will “Feel a Lot More Normal By the Summer”, Says Neil Ferguson

Professor Neil Ferguson says that the success of the U.K.’s vaccine rollout means life will feel more normal by the summer, though we will still “not [be] completely back to normal“. His predictions echo recent reports that while many restrictions will come to an end on June 21st, mask-wearing and caps on numbers attending large events could stay in place past the “end” of lockdown. But with Covid cases and deaths continuing to fall, more MPs – and even papers – are asking why restrictions can’t come to an end now. MailOnline has more.

The SAGE Adviser and Imperial College London Epidemiologist, whose sobering death toll predictions led Britain into its first lockdown last year, said today that he expects the vaccine rollout to help keep the U.K. out of lockdown for good. 

His comments will be seized upon by the Tory MPs calling for the roadmap to normality to be sped up…

Sir Robert Syms, Tory MP for Poole in Dorset, yesterday said: “We need to push the Government to get on with it. A lot of normal life could be returned.” He said the country would “lose another summer” if rules aren’t eased soon. 

The PM has so far refused to budge in the face of calls for more freedom. Trade Secretary Liz Truss this morning dodged questions about whether she thought it should be sped up and told talkRADIO: “We do need to make sure any opening up is irreversible.”

… Professor Ferguson said that jabs appear to work so well that they may hold the virus at bay even in the autumn and winter, when experts fear it will make a comeback like flu. 

He added that the ratio of cases to hospital admissions would be much lower next time around and it was unlikely there will be any danger of the NHS getting overwhelmed.

He admitted “we do expect transmission” when society fully reopens in June but suggested vaccination should replace the need for lockdowns and the U.K. is “in a very good position” to stick to plans for June 21st.

Professor Ferguson’s main fear now is the threat of Covid variants, against which he believes “booster [vaccine] doses” should be administered.

Other advisers to SAGE last week published a study showing that Pfizer’s jab protects well against the South African variant after people have had both doses.

Professor Ferguson said: “The risk from variants, where vaccines are less effective is the major concern. That’s the one thing that could still lead to a very major third wave in the autumn.

“So I think it’s essential that we roll out booster doses which can protect against that as soon as we finish vaccinating the adult population which should finish by the summer…

“It’s much better to be vaccinating people than shutting down the whole of society. 

“So I think, with that one caveat, I am feeling fairly optimistic that we will be – not completely back to normal – but something that feels a lot more normal by the summer.”

Worth reading in full.

“Social” Distancing Could Be Scrapped from June 21st, but Masks Will Remain and Numbers at Large Events Will Be Capped

Last week, Boris Johnson said there was a “very good chance” all Covid restrictions would come to an end on June 21st, yet the latest reports suggest that mask-wearing and caps on numbers attending large events could stay in place past the “end” of lockdown. The Government is said to have already told football’s UEFA that crowd sizes at upcoming events will be limited to 45,000. So when will restrictions actually come to an end? The Times has more.

The “one metre-plus” social distancing rule will be scrapped from June 21st under plans to ensure that all restaurants, pubs, theatres and cinemas can reopen fully, the Times understands.

Masks will have to be worn in some cases to mitigate the risks but it will mean venues can reopen at full capacity for the first time in 15 months.

Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, confirmed yesterday that some coronavirus restrictions would remain beyond June 21st, causing concern in hospitality…

The Times understands this means theatre and cinema audiences must wear face coverings during performances and there will be strict guidance on ventilation and staggered entry.

Pubs and restaurants may keep one-way systems, screens and a requirement to wear masks while moving around but, crucially, there will be no restrictions on customer numbers.

The Prime Minister is expected to be presented with the recommendations as part of an interim report looking at the success of recent trials, including events held without social distancing. Removing the one metre-plus rule would be a lifeline for thousands of businesses that warned they faced bankruptcy if the Government kept social-distancing rules this summer.

However, the biggest events will still have a cap on numbers beyond June 21st, meaning Wembley Stadium will be half empty for the European Championship final on July 11st. The Government is said to have told UEFA, European football’s governing body, that crowd sizes will be limited to 45,000.

Government sources added that fears of “pinch points” on public transport and at bars around the stadium would prevent a full crowd of 90,000 fans. A source said: “If you’ve got 90,000 people in a stadium, it’s going to be very difficult. It was always quite ambitious to go to 50% but we’ve told UEFA we’re working on a 50% basis.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: MailOnline columnist Dan Wooton says enough is enough. We must make sure June 21st is the day we get our old lives back and if we aren’t we should just take them back.

Stop Press 2: Just one Covid death was reported in the whole of Britain today, leading to further calls for the “roadmap” out of lockdown to be sped up – and for all restrictions to come to an end thereafter.

Government Evidence on Masks is Weak and a Mess

Matthew Sweet has written in UnHerd about the importance of following footnotes in studies to find out if the references actually say what the studies claim they say and genuinely back up the argument being made. He suggests this indicates whether or not the study should be considered reliable.

One of his examples is the mask study by Dr Baruch Vainshelboim, now retracted, that I wrote about yesterday. He says a number of the footnotes are misrepresented (this criticism was part of the retraction notice).

If Dr Vainshelboim did misrepresent the papers he cites he would not be the first. As noted yesterday, a recent peer-reviewed study in PNAS claimed surgical masks filter out 95-99% of aerosol droplets. Yet the two papers it cites to back up this claim say nothing of the sort. One concludes: “None of these surgical masks exhibited adequate filter performance and facial fit characteristics to be considered respiratory protection devices.” This is not to defend Dr Vainshelboim’s misrepresentation of course, but to highlight the double standards applied to those who challenge political orthodoxies.

Today I thought I would follow Matthew Sweet’s advice for the Government’s own evidence. We learned yesterday that face masks may continue after June 21st, with no indication of when the mandate may be lifted or what conditions may trigger it. What scientific evidence is this seemingly permanent coercive public health measure based on? After all, the real world evidence for masks preventing outbreaks is feeble, to say the least, as Yinon Weiss has dramatically illustrated.

The Government has often been slow to publish evidence for its supposedly scientifically based interventions. But in January its scientific advisory group SAGE published a paper in which it set out its current evidence on masks. This included an important admission that masks give no real protection to the wearer, saying: “They may provide a small amount of protection to an uninfected wearer; however, this is not their primary intended purpose (medium confidence).” They say they are “predominantly a source control”.

Face coverings worn in public, community and workplace settings are predominantly a source control, designed to reduce the emission of virus carrying particles from the mouth and nose of an infected person. This may have measurable benefits in reducing population level transmission when worn widely, through reducing the potential for asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people spreading the virus without their knowledge. Analysis of regional level data in several countries suggest this impact is typically around 6-15% (Cowling and Leung, 2020, Public Health England 2021) but could be as high as 45% (Mitze et al., 2020).

This is the key paragraph in terms of providing evidence for the effectiveness of face masks, and on closer inspection it is a mess. It says: “Analysis of regional level data in several countries suggest this impact is typically around 6-15%.” Yet the 6-15% figure comes from the Cowling and Leung paper, which is not an analysis of regional level data but an editorial article drawing on a December 2020 review paper by Brainard et al. The Brainard paper reviews 33 studies including 12 randomised controlled trials (RCTs), but none of these is an analysis of regional level data.

The Mitze paper actually is an analysis of regional level data, but only in Germany not in several countries. It was submitted in July 2020 and is based on data from the decline of the spring wave. As infections were falling then anyway it is very hard to distinguish the possible effect of masks from natural decline. In any case, the mask mandate in Germany did not prevent the winter surge, as the graph above depicts.

Dominic Raab Rejects Calls to Speed up the Exit From Lockdown

No amount of good news on the Covid front will persuade the Government to speed up the exit from lockdown. We are “very close now to really turning the corner” in our efforts against Covid, but not close enough that our unlock can be brought forward, according to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. What’s more, he said that rules on mask-wearing and social distancing could continue beyond June 21st. MailOnline has the story.

The Foreign Secretary warned “there will still need to be some safeguards in place” after [June 21st] in comments likely to anger Tory MPs who want all coronavirus rules to be lifted. 

[Talking to Sophy Ridge on Sky News,] Mr Raab rejected calls to speed up the roadmap as he insisted “we are very close now to really turning the corner” in the battle against the disease. 

The success of the U.K.’s vaccination programme and falling infection numbers have prompted demands for the Government to bring forward its reopening dates. 

But the Foreign Secretary this morning urged people to be patient as he insisted June 21st is not far away and “we are nearly there’”.

He argued that “taking steady steps out of the lockdown is the smart way to go” to avoid undoing the progress made during the national shutdown. 

He also… promised that on June 21st “almost all social restrictions will be lifted”.

To justify the “roadmap” continuing at its current slow pace, Raab said: “[The] fourth step out of lockdown is not far away now so I think [we should] just hang on.” But for the sake of the hospitality venues that have yet to reopen (and even those that have reopened outdoors), and for the sake of the nation’s mental and physical health, any amount of time still spent in lockdown is too long.

MailOnline‘s report is worth reading in full.

Journal Retracts Study Showing Masks Don’t Work Claiming Science “Clearly Shows” Masks Work, But Fails to Cite Any Evidence

The peer-reviewed study “Facemasks in the COVID-19 era: A health hypothesis” by Dr Baruch Vainshelboim has been retracted by the journal Medical Hypotheses on the instruction of the Editor-in-Chief.

The study argues that neither medical nor non-medical facemasks are effective in blocking transmission of viral and infectious disease such as SARS-CoV-2, and that in the long run they are likely to damage individual health.

The retraction notice reads:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief.

Medical Hypotheses serves as a forum for innovative and often disruptive ideas in medicine and related biomedical sciences. However, our strict editorial policy is that we do not publish misleading or inaccurate citations to advance any hypotheses.

The Editorial Committee concluded that the author’s hypothesis is misleading on the following basis:

1. A broader review of existing scientific evidence clearly shows that approved masks with correct certification, and worn in compliance with guidelines, are an effective prevention of COVID-19 transmission.

2. The manuscript misquotes and selectively cites published papers. References #16, 17, 25 and 26 are all misquoted.

3. Table 1. Physiological and Psychological Effects of Wearing Facemask and Their Potential Health Consequences, generated by the author. All data in the table is unverified, and there are several speculative statements.

4. The author submitted that he is currently affiliated to Stanford University, and VA Palo Alto Health Care System. However, both institutions have confirmed that Dr Vainshelboim ended his connection with them in 2016.

A subsequent internal investigation by the Editor-in-Chief and the Publisher have determined that this article was externally peer reviewed but not with our customary standards of rigour prior to publication. The journal has re-designed its editorial and review workflow to ensure that this will not happen again in future.

If there are errors in the paper, the question is why these were not picked up and addressed with the author prior to publication in the usual manner. If some were missed and subsequently came to light, the journal could have asked for revisions to the paper to address the criticisms. That it chose to retract it completely suggests the move is political (though the allegations of dishonesty in affiliations may have played a part). There is no indication in the notice of any correspondence with the author in the matter.

The strangest criticism is the first: “A broader review of existing scientific evidence clearly shows that approved masks with correct certification, and worn in compliance with guidelines, are an effective prevention of COVID-19 transmission.” This is just a restatement, without references, of mask orthodoxy. Given that Dr Vainshelboim had provided a wide range of references in his review of the evidence, a rebuttal should surely have come in the form of a similar rigorous academic exercise, marshalling further evidence, not a bald 28-word sentence about what the evidence “clearly shows”. This is not the way robust academic research happens or science advances. The editors could have published a response, or another study drawing on further evidence that comes to a different conclusion. That they instead retract the article on account of criticisms from unnamed correspondents, drawing on unspecified evidence, is a disgraceful way to treat peer-reviewed scientific research and the scientists who produce it.

What exactly is this uncited evidence that “clearly shows” masks reduce transmission? Certainly not the only randomised controlled trial, Danmask-19, which found no significant protection for the wearers of surgical masks. And certainly not the real-world evidence comparing countries or states with mask mandates to those without.

“New Normal”: Sports Fans Could Be Banned From Drinking and Encouraged to Stamp, Not Cheer

A member of SAGE has suggested that the Government should learn from the Black Lives Matter movement in how to make mask-wearing and social distancing “an inherent part” of attending sports events, as plans are being drawn up to ban drinking and encourage stamping and clapping rather than cheering at large events. The Times has the story.

Sports fans could be banned from drinking and encouraged to stamp and clap instead of cheering under plans to make mass events safe for the summer.

As British cities prepare to host football’s European Championships, tests are under way to discover whether it is better for social distancing to ban alcohol or to serve fans pints in their seats to prevent crowding at bars.

Ministers have accepted that testing before entry is likely to be required to make concerts, festivals and sporting fixtures safe even after all restrictions are lifted on June 21st. They are debating which elements of social distancing and Covid-secure rules will need to remain in place beyond that date…

Boris Johnson is keen to take a cautious approach to reopening and pilots are taking place to see which mitigation measures will need to be retained at concerts, nightclubs and stadiums.

The use of masks, physical distancing, hugs and handshakes, singing and the sharing of food and drink are all being monitored using CCTV and wearable devices. Different levels of social distancing rules and ventilation are also being trialled, with participants being tested five days later…

Professor Dame Theresa Marteau of the University of Cambridge, a behavioural scientist and member of SAGE, is chairing the scientific group overseeing the test events. In a scientific paper published just before they began, she argued it would be essential to create “new norms” for sports and music fans. “While it is a basic norm of many sports crowds that people express passionate support for their team, and without that the whole activity has little meaning… it may be possible to develop new and distinctive ways of expressing that passion (stamping, clapping, etc) that are of lower risk than shouting or singing,” she wrote.

She suggested learning from the Black Lives Matter movement in how to weave Covid-secure messages into the fabric of sporting events – making social distancing and mask-wearing “an inherent part” of what it means to be a fan of a team. However, she emphasised this would need to be developed in partnership with fans rather than imposed by the Government.

Players and pop stars should be encouraged to “scrupulously observe restrictions such as not hugging each other after a success” to reinforce the message, she suggested.

Worth reading in full.

12 Year-Old Schoolgirl Suing School for “Requiring” Pupils to Wear Face Masks

MailOnline has picked up on the story we’ve been highlighting in our daily newsletter for over a week: a 12 year-old schoolgirl is suing a Sheffield multi-academy trust for “requiring and encouraging” pupils to wear face masks. The case is being supported by lawyers at the Law or Fiction group.

A schoolgirl is suing a school for “requiring” pupils to wear face masks which she says “risks causing children serious harm” to their physical and mental health. 

The pupil is suing the Tapton Academy School Trust, which runs a number of primary and secondary schools in the Sheffield area, to stop it from “requiring or encouraging” children to wear masks at school to prevent the spread of Covid.

The 12 year-old, known only as AB, who is exempt from wearing a mask at school, says mask-wearing could lead to “long-term” harm.

But the Trust argues that it only encourages the wearing of masks, in line with Government guidance, in order to protect children, staff and visitors.

The Trust also says that 120 members of staff across its various schools, representing more than 10% of its total staff, have contracted coronavirus since the end of August last year.

At a remote hearing today, AB’s lawyers asked the High Court to grant an interim injunction preventing her school and the Trust from making children wear masks.

Francis Hoar, representing AB, told the court: “The school’s policy risks causing children serious harm to their physical health and their mental health.” …

“If the Trust had done its job properly… it would have gathered evidence and reached a view as to the effectiveness of this particular measure, but it has done no such thing.

“There is no evidence, effectively, of the efficacy of these instruments that are supposedly necessary to avoid the risk of transmission of the virus.”

He argued in written submissions: “The available evidence shows that not only is there no additional risk of transmission of the virus in school settings but also that, by comparison to any ordinary social or work setting, the risk is likely to be lower given the extremely low prevalence of the virus in schools.”

Mr Hoar accepted that AB did not have to wear a mask at school, but added: “The child is still faced with a school environment where a child, save those who are disabled should, must rather, wear masks, and that is enforced, the child says, aggressively.”

Worth reading in full.

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