BMA urges public to wear masks as government eases social distancing

Doctors' leaders have called for the public to wear masks 'as a matter of course' after prime minister Boris Johnson said social distancing rules would shift from two metres to one from 4 July.

Prime minister Boris Johnson (Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Prime minister Boris Johnson (Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Just a day after unveiling plans to wind down restrictions for at-risk patients asked to shield during the COVID-19 pandemic from 6 July, the government announced a raft of changes to rules around social distancing and the opening of businesses.

Pubs, restaurants and hairdressers will be able to reopen if they follow government advice on remaining 'COVID secure', while playgrounds, cinemas, museums, galleries, libraries, community centres and places of worship may also be allowed to open 'if they can do so safely'.

Two households of any size will be allowed to meet 'in any setting, inside or out', with social distancing measures and can share accommodation overnight.

COVID-19 guidance

Where two-metre social distancing is not possible, the government has said guidance will recommend a distance of 'one-metre plus'.

In a major shift in its approach to the pandemic, advice set out by the government on social contact from now on will constitute 'guidance instead of legislation', the prime minister told parliament - acknowledging that lockdown had seen the 'toughest restrictions in peacetime history'.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul acknowledged that the relaxation in social distancing rules was 'designed to be of benefit to business and to households' - but warned that coronavirus was still in circulation.

He said: 'The crucial aspect of this reduction in distancing is the prime minister’s acknowledgement that it comes with conditions attached – one of these is the wearing face coverings. The BMA believes face masks or coverings should be worn by the public now as a matter of course, in order to keep the risk of infection as low as possible.'

Face coverings

The BMA chair cited evidence that a person infected with coronavirus in close proximity with another person had a 70% chance of transmitting it - but that risk dropped to 5% if the infected person was wearing a mask, and to 1.5% if both people wore one.

'It makes absolute sense therefore that the wearing of masks will significantly help bring this pandemic further under control and reduce even further the risk of a second spike,' Dr Nagpaul said.

The BMA chair called for more information on how the government planned to measure the impact of easing restrictions 'to ensure these changes do not result in more people becoming infected, ill, or die; or a second spike which could overwhelm the NHS should this occur this winter'.

Mr Johnson told MPs: 'The number of new infections is now declining by an average of between 2% and 4% every day. Four weeks ago an average of one in 400 peple in the community in England had COVID-19 - in the first half of June this figure was one in 1,700.'

He said the pandemic had inflicted 'permanent scars' and that the number of daily deaths had peaked at close to 1,000 in April. But he said: 'We do not believe there is currently - currently - a risk of a second peak of infections that might overwhelm the NHS.'

The prime minister acknowledged, however, that the 'virus has not gone away'. He added: 'As we have seen in other countries, there will be flare-ups for which local measures will be needed. And we will not hesitate to apply the brakes and reintroduce restrictions - even at national level if required.

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