Face masks 'could become routine for stopping viruses spreading'

How long will we REALLY need to wear face masks for? SAGE adviser says we could still be using them in five years out of habit – while Sir Patrick Vallance claims they may be necessary to curb Covid next winter

  • Prof Graham Medley says masks could be brought back if new viruses appear
  • He says he would not be surprised if they are still used for ‘years to come’ 
  • Sir Patrick Vallance suggested their use could still be mandatory this winter

Face masks will likely keep being used ‘for years to come’ if coronavirus continues to spread and new viruses crop up, top scientists say.

Professor Graham Medley, a SAGE adviser and infectious disease expert at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said they may still be used in five years from now.

And the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, yesterday said face masks may still be required next winter even if all adults in the UK have been vaccinated against Covid.

Sir Patrick said the Government will keep a set of ‘baseline’ Covid measures after the country comes out of lockdown and these could include wearing masks in public.    

Face coverings were first made mandatory for public transport in June and later for shops and other indoor spaces, after heated debates about whether they actually slow the spread of the virus.

And in the US, chief medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci warned people they could still be wearing masks into next year.

Professor Medley said he was optimistic ‘for the first time in a year’ in an interview with LBC’s Nick Ferrari, but that the country was unlikely to return to pre-pandemic life any time soon. 

Professor Graham Medley, a SAGE adviser and infectious disease expert at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said they may still be used in five years from now 

Face masks will likely keep being used ‘for years to come’ because the coronavirus will continue to spread and new viruses could crop up, top scientists say. Pictured: People wearing face masks walk through snowfall on Great George Street beside Parliament Square in London on February 9

He said: ‘Let’s see where we are in September. 

‘I think it’s likely face coverings will continue to be a measure against respiratory viruses, and not just for this virus but, in five years time, if coronavirus 3 comes out then face coverings will go straight back on.’

Speaking to MailOnline, Professor Medley explained that while current evidence suggests mask use may only reduce transmission by a few per cent, this effect when multiplied across a whole population can have a significant effect.

He said: ‘Personally I will not be surprised to see people wearing face coverings in the future in crowded, indoor places for years to come. 

‘Whether government requires them is unknown.’ 

Face masks are expected to still be in use until the end of the year at least, Sir Patrick warned.  

Speaking alongside Boris Johnson at a Downing Street press conference yesterday, the chief scientific adviser suggested ‘non-medical interventions’, including masks, are likely to continue even if the UK’s vaccination drive is successful.

He said: ‘It’s possible that, coming into next winter in particular, certain things may be necessary.

‘Tony Fauci yesterday said in the US that he thought that things like masks may be needed next winter.

‘I think we’re in the same position, that it may be necessary next winter to have things like mask-wearing in certain situations.’

Dr Fauci said that while he agreed with President Joe Biden that the US would reach a ‘degree’ of normality by the end of the year, it is possible face masks would still be required in public in 2022.

And masks will likely still be legally required on public transport and in shops until at least that year in the UK according to a majority of infectious disease experts polled by New Scientist.

The survey of around 200 leading UK epidemiologists, modellers, virologists and public health researchers suggested the ‘one metre-plus’ for physical distancing will also likely still be in place next year.

Sir Patrick Vallance yesterday said that face masks may still be required as far as next winter — even if all adults in the UK have been vaccinated against coronavirus

Professor Mark Jit, a vaccine epidemiology expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that even if masks are made no longer compulsory, their use could continue to be widespread in the years ahead.

He said: ‘It will stop being legally mandated at some point, but I think there will be a permanent culture change for people to wear face masks in public, especially when they have respiratory symptoms. We already saw that happen in Asia following SARS.’ 

It comes after documents released yesterday suggest the Government’s ‘baseline’ measures against Covid — avoiding crowded public transport, ensuring good ventilation indoors  and wearing face masks — could continue indefinitely.

In a document dated February 17, SAGE said: ‘Maintaining baseline measures to reduce transmission once restrictions are lifted is almost certain to save many lives and minimise the threat to hospital capacity.

‘These could include voluntary measures as well as effective Test, Trace and Isolate.’

Minutes from a SAGE meeting on February 18 added: ‘Detaining a baseline set of policies to reduce transmission after other restrictions have been lifted would reduce the scale of a resurgence.

‘A specific set of policies has not been modelled, but could include voluntary measures (e.g. hygiene measures, mask wearing in certain situations, avoiding crowding), environmental measures (e.g. ventilation), and test, trace, and isolate systems. Some of these policies are likely to be needed in the longer term.’

And last month Britain’s chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam suggested people may choose to wear masks forever.

He said he did not think mask-use would be enforced but that people could continue wearing coverings long after the pandemic has subsided. 

He told The Sun: ‘The pandemic has changed a lot of things. It has changed the way you and I approach hand hygiene.

‘I think there are going to be people who make a personal decision to say, you know what, when I’m in a crowded place in the winter I’m going to put a face covering on. 

‘When I’m on a tube I am going to put a face covering on.’ 


Research on how well various types of masks and face coverings protect against coronavirus has varied but experts and politicians have generally leaned towards the idea that the chance of some protection is better than none.

In the UK, face coverings were first made mandatory in for public transport in June and later for shops and other indoor spaces in July. 

Here’s what studies have shown so far about whether masks work: 


Researchers at Boston University in the US found wearing face masks is an effective way to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The study, published in the journal Lancet Digital Health, found a 10 per cent rise in self-reported mask wearing is associated with a three-fold increase in the odds of keeping the R number – the number of others each person with coronavirus infects – below 1.

Co-author of the study Ben Rader, of Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston University, said: ‘An important finding of this research is that mask wearing is not a replacement for physical distancing.’ 


Scientists at New Mexico State University in the US found wearing a cloth mask may not shield the user totally from coronavirus because infected droplets can slip through, but it would significantly reduce how many.

‘Wearing a mask will offer substantial, but not complete, protection to a susceptible person,’ said Dr Krishna Kota, an associate professor at the university who led the research.

The study found while all masks blocked at least 95 per cent of droplets from coughs and sneezes – there was still a risk of the disease being passed on.


Research by the University of Massachusetts Lowell and California Baptist University in the US found wearing a used three-layer surgical mask can reduce the number of small droplets that are released into the air by two thirds.

Co-author Dr Jinxiang Xi said: ‘It is natural to think that wearing a mask, no matter new or old, should always be better than nothing.

‘Our results show that this belief is only true for particles larger than five micrometers, but not for fine particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers.’ 


A study by Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark suggested face masks may only offer the wearer limited protection against Covid infection.

Researchers found there was no statistically significant difference in the number of people who contacted the virus in a group wearing masks in public compared to a group that did not do so.

The study was carried out in April and May when Danish authorities did not recommend wearing face coverings. 


Research by Edinburgh University in Scotland suggested cloth face masks are effective at reducing the amount of droplets spread by coughing or sneezing.

The findings suggest a person standing two metres from someone coughing without a mask is exposed to 10,000 times more droplets than from someone standing half a metre away wearing a basic single layer mask. 

Professor Paul Digard, of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, said: ‘The simple message from our research is that face masks work.

‘Wearing a face covering will reduce the probability that someone unknowingly infected with the virus will pass it on.’


A study by Duke University in North Carolina, US, found N95 masks are the most effective masks at reducing the spread of Covid-19.

The research published in the journal Science Advances, studied 14 types of face coverings.

Co-author Dr Eric Westman said: ‘If everyone wore a mask, we could stop up to 99 percent of these droplets before they reach someone else.

‘In the absence of a vaccine or antiviral medicine, it’s the one proven way to protect others as well as yourself.’ 


A University of Oxford study published on March 30 last year concluded that surgical face masks are just as effective at preventing respiratory infections as N95 respirators for doctors, nurses and other health care workers. 

N95 respirators are made of thick, tightly woven and moulded material that fits tightly over the face and can stop 95 percent of all airborne particles, while surgical masks are thinner, fit more loosely, and more porous.

The Oxford analysis of past studies – which has not yet been peer reviewed – found that surgical masks were worth wearing but any face mask is only as good as other health and hygiene practices.

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