Behind the scenes

European countries split over use of medical-grade face masks

Germany and Austria mandate use of expensive FFP2 masks while WHO backs fabric coverings

The debate over face masks to protect against Covid has taken a new twist as some European nations make medical-grade masks compulsory while the World Health Organization (WHO) continues to support the use of fabric versions.

The German state of Bavaria and Austria have “tightened rules” to mandate that FFP2 masks must be worn inside shops and on public transport, Politico reports. And France has “recommended against wearing some homemade masks that don’t meet certain standards”. 

“But many other European countries, as well as the WHO, are sticking to their current advice,” the news site adds. 

The UN health agency’s technical lead for Covid-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, insists that “limited and inconsistent scientific evidence” on masks in community settings is grounds to retain the existing guidance, rather than recommending higher-grade masks.

Explaining the difference between the various kinds of face coverings, Lawrence Young, professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, said that while “fabric masks, or blue and white surgical masks, stop you breathing out infectious virus onto other people”, FFP2 masks are designed to “protect the wearer from breathing in infectious virus shed in aerosols from infected individuals”.

However, Dr Simon Kolstoe, a senior lecturer in evidence-based healthcare at the University of Portsmouth, told Euronews that although FFP2 masks are used in hospitals and laboratories, it would be “unreasonable” to expect them to be as effective when used by members of the public who lack the “training” that health professionals will have received.

“Anyone who’s worked in those sorts of environments knows that it’s not just a case of slapping a mask on,” Kolstoe said. “There’s training as well, wearing gloves, wearing the right equipment, washing your hands, an appropriate way of handling things.”

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