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Matt Hancock says ‘no change’ in advice on coronavirus masks after Nicola Sturgeon tells Scots to wear face coverings

Matt Hancock says ‘no change’ in advice on coronavirus masks after Nicola Sturgeon tells Scots to wear face coverings
3 min read

The UK Government's advice on wearing face masks “hasn’t changed”, the Health Secretary has said, after Nicola Sturgeon recommended that the public use face coverings to halt the spread of Covid-19.

Matt Hancock told the daily Downing Street press briefing that the scientific case for wearing masks was “weak”, despite the Scottish Government telling the public to cover up as a precautionary measure to curb the outbreak.

Ms Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, on Tuesday explained that the move would not be mandatory and said she did not expect people to wear medical grade masks.

But her government is advising the public to use scarves or other clothing to cover their faces when they leave the house.

The announcement puts her at odds with ministers in Westminster who have so far declined to issue similar guidance - although Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove on Tuesday confirmed that plans were underway to build a stockpile of face coverings.

Speaking at the Number 10 briefing on Tuesday night, Mr Hancock said: “On face masks, we are guided by the science and the Government position hasn’t changed."

The Health Secretary added: “The UK government position hasn’t changed, not least because the most important thing people can do is the social distancing as opposed to the weak science on face masks. 

“There is very clear science on social distancing and the importance of it so that is our absolute priority in terms of the message to the public.”

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) met on Tuesday to discuss the latest evidence on the pandemic, with their findings on masks now in the hands of ministers.

But Government scientific adviser Dame Angela McLean said: "The recommendation from Sage is completely clear, which is there is weak evidence of a small effect in which a face mask can prevent a source of infection going from somebody who is infected to the people around them."

Several other European countries, including Germany and Spain, have already made the wearing of face masks in public a compulsory measure.

However, UK ministers have so far resisted following the example amid concerns over shortages of personal protective equipment for frontline health care workers.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove was pressed by Labour's Rachel Reeves in the Commons on Tuesday on whether the UK would build a face coverings.

He said: "I can confirm Lord Agnew, the joint Cabinet Office and Treasury minister, has launched a domestic effort to ensure we produce just such masks and that is part of the broader effort that Lord Deighton is leading on ensuring we can bolster the production of personal protection equipment.”

Speaking earlier today, a Number 10 spokesperson meanwhile insisted the announcement from Ms Sturgeon had not disrupted a "four nations" approach to tackling the virus, saying Westminster and Holyrood would continue to "work closely".

They added: "There have been points in the response so far when announcements have been made at ever-so-slightly different times but I think by-in-large we have moved forward with a single four nations approach.

"I think the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all said that they hope that continues to be the case and we agree with that and continue to work closely with them."

The move by Ms Sturgeon comes after the Scottish Government called for a "grown-up" conversation with the public about the route out of lockdown, setting out its own criteria for potentially easing the restrictive measures that have now been in force for more than a month.

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