Requiring everyone to wear a face mask in public, combined with on/off lockdowns would prevent a second wave of coronavirus for 18 months, according to new research.
The modelling study from the universities of Cambridge and Greenwich suggested that this would create the time gap needed to find a vaccine or effective treatment by keeping the COVID-19 reproduction number (R rate) below 1.0, something not possible with lockdowns alone.
Researchers concluded that even homemade masks with limited effectiveness could dramatically reduce transmission rates if worn by enough people, regardless of whether they show symptoms.
Lead author, Dr Richard Stutt, part of a team that usually models the spread of crop diseases at Cambridge’s department of plant sciences, said: “Our analyses support the immediate and universal adoption of face masks by the public.
“If widespread face mask use by the public is combined with physical distancing and some lockdown, it may offer an acceptable way of managing the pandemic and re-opening economic activity long before there is a working vaccine.”
In the study, population-level models were combined with different levels of mask adoption and varying periods of lockdown.
The negative aspects of mask use, such as increased face touching, were also considered.
In all modelling scenarios, researchers found routine face mask use by 50% or more of the population reduced COVID-19 spread to an R less than 1.0.
This flattened future disease waves and allowed less-stringent lockdowns.
The research found that even homemade or inefficient masks still provided a “population-level benefit”.
Professor John Colvin, co-author from the University of Greenwich, said: “There is a common perception that wearing a face mask means you consider others a danger.
“In fact, by wearing a mask you are primarily protecting others from yourself.
“Cultural and even political issues may stop people wearing face masks, so the message needs to be clear: ‘my mask protects you, your mask protects me’.
“In the UK, the approach to face masks should go further than just public transport.
“The most effective way to restart daily life is to encourage everyone to wear some kind of mask whenever they are in public.”