Mandatory face masks and temporary lockdowns will save lives, study suggests

Stricter rules on protective clothing in public spaces will help with any test and tracing strategies, according to new research.

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Making face masks mandatory in all public spaces will help to slow the spread of coronavirus and could prevent up to 50,000 deaths over the next two years, according to a study co-led by University College London, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Haifa.

Currently, face coverings are required on public transport and in hospitals in England, but are only recommended in shops and other crowded areas, such as in parks or on beaches. Alongside effective testing and tracing, the universities’ study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggested that imposing more stringent rules around protective clothing could cap the UK death toll at just over 50,000 – and save an estimated £700bn in GDP.

The researchers also suggested that additional lockdowns over short periods of time may be required to help contain cases of Covid-19, and supported the idea of more working from home where possible. This would, they argued, help the implementation of a large-scale test-and-trace programme.

Lead author of the research, Dr Tim Colbourn, from UCL’s Institute for Global Health, said in a statement: “Our results make a strong case for expanding testing and tracing immediately to control Covid-19 spread until a vaccine or highly effective drugs are available.”

He added: “By clearly showing the health and economic benefits that such a system could lead to, we hope our study will help to galvanise support for integrated testing, tracing and isolation for the UK.”

Earlier this month, The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, analysed data from 172 studies in 16 different countries, and found that, on average, a person has just a 3 per cent chance of contracting coronavirus when wearing a face mask. Keeping at least one metre apart, meanwhile, reduces the risk of transmission to 2.6 per cent.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

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