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Facemasks “as crucial as handwashing and social distancing”.

 Wearing a facemask should be considered as crucial as handwashing and everyone should carry one when they leave the house, according to the president of Britain’s leading scientific body.

Venki Ramakrishnan, who heads the Royal Society and holds a Nobel prize in chemistry, made the comments as he released a report showing that despite the growing evidence masks slow virus transmission, the UK is among the worst for wearing them.

“The UK is way behind many countries in terms of wearing masks and clear policies and guidelines about mask wearing for the public,” he said.

Figures show that by the end of April only a quarter of Britons had worn masks, compared with about two thirds in the US.

“The public have taken to handwashing and distancing but remain sceptical about face coverings. You only need to go on public transport, where they are supposed to be mandatory, to see how many people are ignoring this new rule based on the growing body of evidence that wearing a mask will help protect others – and might even protect you.”

While the wider scientific community in Britain was sceptical about their effectiveness early in the pandemic, the committee, known as Delve, believed that the weight of evidence was in their favour. Given that many people may be infected without knowing, the report concluded that even simple cloth masks probably have value in preventing them passing on the disease inadvertently through droplets, and may also provide protection for wearers too.

While we may not need one if outside, he said we should get used to carrying one to put on when we go into shops or other buildings.

“If all of us wear one, we protect each other and thereby ourselves, reducing transmission. We lower the chances of future surges and lockdowns which are economically and psychologically disruptive, and we increase the chance of eliminating the virus. Not doing so increases the risk for everyone, from NHS workers to your grandmother.”