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Social distancing is pointless without a mask, Cambridge University study suggests

  • Study used computer modelling to measure droplet travel distance from coughs
  • They found 2metres was no defense against potential infection, singulair nei bambini even outdoors
  • Researchers urged people to keep wearing masks as country heads into winter 

The two-metre social distancing rule still followed by four in ten Britons today may be pointless unless you wear a mask, a study suggested today. 

Cambridge University researchers found that a mask-less person with Covid can still infect others at that distance even when outdoors. 

The two-metre social distancing rule imposed by the UK Government in March 2020 during the first lockdown but Britons were not encouraged to wear masks until May.

Experts and Government initially said masks could do ‘more harm than good’ before reversing on the policy, making them compulsory on public transport in June and then in shops and public spaces the following month.

Studies have since shown coverings can be highly effective in reducing transmission, especially if worn by an infectious person.

The two-metre rule was shortened to one-metre this July as part of the relaxing of pandemic restrictions. 

ONS figures show 41 per cent of the country are still following social distancing when in public, while 85 per cent say they are still wearing face masks.

The Cambridge study used computer modelling to measure how droplets exhaled by people spread when they cough. 

The team said their findings highlight the continued importance of getting Covid jabs, ventilating indoor spaces, and wearing masks as the country heads into the winter months.  

A new study suggests that a two metre social distancing rules is an ‘arbitrary measurement’ of safety in terms of preventing Covid infection if masks are not in use, even outdoors

While mask wearing is still advised in England in indoor settings where people are crowded with strangers, such as public transport, no such guidance applies for outdoor areas.

The engineers, who published their findings in the journal Physics of Fluids, also found individual coughs vary wildly in terms of spreading potentially infectious droplets.

They found that when a mask-less person coughs most of the larger droplets fall on nearby surfaces, however smaller droplets suspend in the air can quickly spread well beyond two metres.  

Mask wearing is ‘the most effective way’ of curbing spread of Covid, study claims 

Mask wearing is the single best public health measure to stop the spread of Covid other than vaccination, a study has found — despite scientists still being split over their effectiveness at a population level. 

A review of six real-world studies on coverings, involving nearly 400,000 total participants, by Monash University researchers in Australia and the University of Edinburgh, concluded that widespread use can cut Covid rates by up to 53 per cent.

But the academics admit that there is significant variation in the studies depending on the methodology used and also identified the risk of bias in the results. 

They study, published last week,  came as data suggests three in 10 under-30s across the UK have abandoned mask-wearing in public, despite the coverings being a legal requirement in Scotland and Wales.

Lead author of the study, Dr Shrey Trivedi said one of the highlights of the study was different individual coughs could vary in terms of droplet distribution. 

‘Each time we cough, we may emit a different amount of liquid, so if a person is infected with Covid, they could be emitting lots of virus particles or very few, and because of the turbulence they spread differently for every cough,’ he said.

Professor Epaminondas Mastorakos, an expert in fluid mechanics from the University of Cambridge urged people to keep wearing masks indoors.

‘We’re all desperate to see the back of this pandemic, but we strongly recommend that people keep wearing masks in indoor spaces such as offices, classrooms and shops,’ he said.

‘There’s no good reason to expose yourself to this risk as long as the virus is with us.’

The researchers are planning to continue their study for specific indoor settings such as lecture halls in universities.   

There has been fierce scientific debate about how well masks work at reducing Covid transmission, despite nearly every country in the world mandating or encouraging their use. 

Lab tests and observational studies have shown masks can block infected people from exhaling up to 80 per cent of the virus into the air and also protect wearers from inhaling up to 50 per cent of the particles.     

But real-world studies, which involve more scientific rigour, have produced mixed results, with some showing they have a huge impact on infection rates and others showing virtually none.

Any protection offered can also depend on the type of mask worn, with medical-grade coverings much better than cloth or surgical masks, as well as if someone wears them correctly. 

Recent data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS)  showed 29 per cent of Britons under-30-years-of-age didn’t wear a mask when they went outside their home in the last week.  

While a new study has claimed wearing masks are the most effective way people can curb Covid transmission new data from the Office of National Statistics shows nearly one in three Britons under 30 didn’t wear one last week

In comparison, only 18 per cent of 30-and-49-years-olds didn’t wear a mask outside, falling to 10 per cent in the over 50s and 4 per cent in the over 70s. 

In total 85 per cent of adults reported wearing a mask during the last week, this compares to 97 per cent who reported doing the same at the same time last year. 

Whether you need to wear a mask or not in the UK is currently dependent on what you are doing and where in the country you live. 

In England compulsory mask wearing was ditched in July as part of the removal of pandemic restrictions, though people are still required to use them in health and care settings. 

In Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland masks are legally required on public transport and in most indoor venues, with the notable exception of pubs and restaurants. 

Exceptions to compulsory mask wearing apply in all countries for people such as young children, and for those whose physical and mental disabilities mean they cannot wear a mask easily or safely. 

WHAT HAVE STUDIES SHOWN ABOUT FACE MASKS AND COVID?

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: 

FACE MASKS LOWER VIRUS R RATE (JANUARY 2021)

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.’ 

INFECTIOUS DROPLETS WILL STILL SLIP THROUGH (DECEMBER 2020)

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.

A MASK ‘WILL ALWAYS BE BETTER THAN NOTHING’ (DECEMBER 2020)

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.’ 

MASK-WEARERS EQUALLY LIKELY TO CATCH VIRUS (NOVEMBER 2020)

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. 

MASK LEADS TO THOUSANDS FEWER COUGH DROPLETS (AUGUST 2020)

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.’

N95 MEDICAL MASKS COULD PREVENT 99% OF SPREAD (AUGUST 2020)

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.’ 

SURGICAL COVERINGS JUST AS GOOD AS N95 MASKS (MARCH 2020)

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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