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Will wearing facemasks in shops make a difference in the battle against Covid?

The government is introducing plans to make wearing masks in English shops mandatory from July 24 onwards, with fines of up to £100 handed out for non-compliance.

It follows the Scottish government in making face coverings compulsory in shops, the rule came into effect in Scotland on Friday.

The time delay will give the public 10 days to get themselves a mask and get used to using it when they go out.

There has been some disagreement among government ministers whether wearing masks should be required in England, with cabinet minister Michael Gove arguing that the public should be trusted to use their common sense instead of being forced to wear masks .

However, prime minister Boris Johnson, seen wearing a mask in public for the first time last week, now believes a “stricter” approach is required to ensure people are wearing masks in confined spaces where the coronavirus is more likely to be spread.

More elements of the lockdown have been rolled back in recent weeks and the government is urging people to go back out and spend money, with more people going to the shops the need for protection grows.

Will wearing facemasks be the difference maker when it comes to slowing down the spread of Covid-19?

The Claim

Since mid-May the English public has been encouraged to wear a mask when they are in enclosed public spaces such as shops and supermarkets, while mask wearing has been required for anyone using public transport since June 15

Plenty of people will be accustomed to having to wear a mask, now the public is being asked to wear their masks in a few more places.

Research indicates masks are effective at making a person less likely to spread coronavirus to others . They restrict the distance infected droplets from coughs and sneezes travel, meaning someone with the virus is far less likely to pass the virus onto other people or contaminate the area around them.

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Professor Rowland Kao of the University of Edinburgh explains that the effect masks have on limiting the potential for infected droplets to travel is even more important in indoor spaces such as shops and supermarkets.

The relaxation of social distancing and more people coming together indoors makes wearing a mask more important, particularly as up to 80 per cent of Covid-19 cases are asymptomatic and people could be spreading the virus without knowing it.

Attitudes towards mask wearing has changed over the course of the pandemic as our understanding of the virus has grown. The ability to protect others and the risk of asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 has made medical opinions on wearing a mask more positive.

Countries with a higher rate of mask wearing appear to have lover infection rates and anything which makes the chances of getting infected by coronavirus lower has got to be a positive, particularly as coming out of lockdown is putting the public at greater risk.

The Counter Claim

On the other hand, there has been some opposition to making wearing a mask compulsory. In England the public have been encouraged to wear masks in shops for around two months, plenty have not followed the suggestion.

Masks might help protect others from people with the coronavirus but their utility at protecting against catching the virus is questionable.

Indeed, there have been warnings that people without the virus might infect themselves through wearing masks if they’re not careful in handling them.

The type of face coverings people wear also makes a big difference in the effectiveness . A study from the University of Oxford found that while homemade masks still make a difference, people really should be aiming for multi-layered masks made from high quality material.

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How much of a difference wearing masks has will depend plenty on the type of coverings other members of the public are wearing.

There are also concerns over enforcing mask-wearing in shops, many will find it difficult to deny customers entry if they aren’t wearing a mask. Shopworkers will be encouraged, but not expected, to enforce the rules.

Further worries persist over the potential for confrontation if people refuse to wear masks but still attempt to shop. If someone has to enforce the new rules it is more likely to be the police , which leads to further problems if there are numerous incidents of non-compliance.

The Fact

Children under 11 and people with certain disabilities will not be required to wear a facemask, as will people with conditions which affect their breathing. Retail staff will not be required to wear a mask when at work.

Fines of £100 can be handed out for failure to comply with the rules that come into force in England on July 24, but that punishment can be dropped down to a £50 payment if it is paid within 14 days.

Polling indicates that the UK lags far behind other countries when it comes to adopting the facemask . Countries such as Spain and Italy started the pandemic with very low amounts of mask wearing, but now have 86 per cent and 83 per cent of people respectively saying they wear masks.

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France (78 per cent), the US (73 per cent) and Germany (65 per cent) have seen similarly large leaps in people wearing masks, whereas the UK only has around 36 per cent of people saying they wear face coverings when out in public.

Health guidance on wearing masks is now rather clear that they help protect against the spread of coronavirus.

Masks are more likely to prevent the wearer spreading the virus to others than protect the wearer from catching Covid-19 off others, but if everyone is protecting the rest of the public from themselves then it will make a difference.

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