The UK Government is set to announce that face masks will be compulsory in shops and supermarkets in England.

But the move is not going to be replicated in Wales.

Wales’ Chief Medical Officer Frank Atherton says the evidence for the move was “weak” and that there was only “small benefit” in wearing face masks.

From July 24, people in English shops could be hit with fines of up to £100 if they don’t wear a mask, but some high street retailers are concerned it could hit consumer confidence.

Face coverings will be mandatory on public transport in Wales from July 27, but there are no plans for them to be made compulsory in shops here.

They are currently required on public transport in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price has called on the Welsh Government to “go further and faster” on face coverings and make them mandatory in shops.

But in an interview with BBC Radio Wales, Frank Atherton went into detail about why a law was not being introduced in Wales – yet.

Frank Atherton

Frank Atherton

Why is it not being made compulsory to wear face masks in Welsh shops?

Frank Atherton told the Claire Summers breakfast show: “We need to look at what England is doing. I haven’t seen any detail because it was announced late on Monday.

“There are inconsistencies everywhere, and one of the inconsistencies I need to understand, in terms of what England has decided to do, is how they work out the risk to someone in a shop.

“Shops in Wales and England have done a great deal to engineer their spaces so they can allow social distancing. I do struggle to understand the difference in England between a shop, and a pub or a restaurant where you will be sitting face to face less than one metre talking.

“There are policy inconsistencies in the different countries and we need to explore those and understand what is best here for the people in Wales.

“We all have access to the same science. We all look at that it is a matter politically how we translate the science into policy.”

What has changed with the evidence on face masks?

He said: “Very little has changed in the evidence. Whenever we have looked at this through the Sage group and our own technical advisory group and our own research, we have always found that the evidence is really quite weak.

“There is undoubtedly a small benefit to the wearing of face masks but most of that evidence is based on surgical face masks, the sort you see in hospitals, rather than the sort of simple face masks that are being advocated in the community.”

The science is the same, so why so much difference between countries?

Mr Atherton said: “There is a divergence of countries, and that can be confusing for people. Here in Wales we take the view to date that in order to mandate something is really quite a high step. We really need a high bar in order to legislate things.

“The three things we look at are whether a policy would be necessary, would it be proportionate, and would it be fair.

“Here in Wales we know that the transmission of the virus is really at low levels at the moment so the question arises as to why we would introduce such a mandation at this point in time.

“The things that really matter like the social distancing, personal hygiene, having the track and trace in place, and down at the end of the list comes the PPE and face coverings.

“I know everybody gets very excited about the issue of face coverings, but at the moment we don’t believe that bar is high enough, the public health hurdle has been passed.”

Why introduce a compulsory public transport rule, but wait until July 27?

He said: “The rate of transmission of the virus in the community at the moment is very low. There is not a great deal in terms of waiting to put the systems in place.

“People on a train, or on a bus are in a confined space for a significant period of time, so it is substantially different to go past someone outdoors, or having a transient meeting with someone in a shop.

“For significant journeys, it is reasonable to remove the covering briefly to have a drink or a snack.

“We considered all of these things, but in the end we decided in Wales, for consistency because trains cross the borders, that it does matter.”

Could things change on face masks?

“I never say never. At the moment we have very low levels of transmission so it would seem to me inappropriate at the moment to introduce that change.

“We just don’t know what is going to happen around the corner with this virus. We are still learning a lot.

“I am hopeful we won’t have a second wave, but I do expect we will see local flare ups.

“If that happens, we may need to think, even on a local level, about other things we can bring in. Face masks could be one of those, but it would be at the end of a long list.

“We need to maintain that social distancing which most of us have got used to. I do worry that we might lose some of that if we focus too much on face coverings.”

The negatives surrounding face masks

Dr Atherton added: “There are downsides to wearing a mask. Some people do feel a bit panicky and there is the risk if you are fiddling with the mask you can do more harm than good.

“The disposing of them is also a worry. I was out running and saw disposed masks in the streets, which is quite distressing.”


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