Following the newly presented EU guidelines, stipulating that face masks should be worn while travelling, the Scandinavian airline SAS was quick to announce that, from now on, all air travellers over the age of six are required to wear a face mask throughout their flight.
Information about the protection face masks provide is ambiguous. Many countries promote the use of face masks in public spaces. Yet Sweden still does not, even after the latest advice from the European Commission. You're allowed to wear one, but the guidelines state they are “not needed in everyday life”.
“Face masks in public spaces do not provide any greater protection to the population,” Johan Carlson from the Swedish Public Health Agency Folkhälsomyndigheten said at a press conference on May 13th.
Swedish health authorities argue that keeping a distance, washing your hands, not touching your face, and staying at home if you experience any symptoms are still the best ways to halt the spread of the coronavirus. There is a concern that wearing face masks would make people follow these guidelines less strictly.
Prime minister Stefan Löfven told reporters at the same press conference: “There is a risk of a false sense of security, that you believe that you can't be infected if you wear a face mask.”
In addition, the Public Health Agency states on its website that wearing a mask could increase the chances of you touching your face, because of itchiness or as you adjust the cloth. Every time your hands touch your eyes, nose or mouth, the risk of being infected with the coronavirus increases.
“The virus can gather in the mask and when you take it off, the virus can be transferred to your hands and thereby spread further,” state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told SVT.
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Healthcare staff use face masks as to prevent bacteria from transferring to their patients. But face masks used in hospitals are generally of a different kind than single-use, lightweight masks bought at pharmacies.
“Face masks can be effective against larger free floating particles [connected to air pollution], but nothing suggests that they help protect you from air-borne viruses,” Tegnell said to SVT.
So why are other countries recommending face masks? Well, one reason is to increase people's feeling of safety. Another is as a precaution, to protect your surroundings in case you are, unknowingly, contagious.
As recently as February, the World Health Organisation stated that viral transmission from asymptomatic people was rare, based on information available at the time. But a growing body of data now suggests that a significant number of infected people who don't have symptoms can still transmit the virus.
It is these 'silent carriers' that have prompted some countries, such as France, to shift their guidelines from being in line with Sweden's, to even making them compulsory in some circumstances in public places.