MPs told there is no strong evidence masks prevent covid transmission

The Pandemic Response and Recovery All-Party Parliamentary Group have heard about the considerable harms of mask wearing and lack of evidence for their efficacy. The briefing comes as some commentators call for the return of face coverings this winter.

The Group’s Chair, Esther McVey, said in response to the briefing: “At the start of the pandemic, we were advised against wearing face masks. The WHO and the chief and deputy chief medical officers, Drs Chris Whitty and Jenny Harries, were clear that there was very little evidence of a widespread benefit from wearing masks, yet they were mandated in July 2020. No high quality scientific evidence of the benefits was forthcoming at the time and the WHO even admitted the policy reversal was due to political lobbying. After hearing from experts today, it is clear we still do not have that evidence.

“Instead there is considerable evidence showing that mask wearing in the community has very limited benefits. Not enough to warrant their blanket reintroduction, as some recent media coverage has suggested would be a good idea, to avoid future lockdowns. What we do now know, are the considerable physical, psychological and environmental harms caused by masks. I sincerely hope the Prime Minister and Health Secretary will take on board that lack of evidence and not bow to pressure to re-impose a policy based on scientific uncertainty.”

Professor Robert Dingwall, consulting sociologist, researcher and writer spoke to the group about his concerns over the evidential uncertainty that still surrounds mask wearing: “In a situation of scientific uncertainty, judgements about action are moral and political. This is precisely where we find ourselves with masks. As SAGE reviews have repeatedly stated, there is, at best, weak evidence of a very small effect. If there were a strong effect, we would expect to see it in randomised controlled trials and the better observational studies. Potential harms must also be considered, as the precautionary principle requires in such a decision making process, not just the potential benefits. Harms are often under-reported and overlooked while benefits are over interpreted and exaggerated.

“Correctly worn, some types of mask may have an individual benefit for self-protection. Individuals are free to wear one, if they choose. But it is problematic for the state to impose behavioural requirements on citizens without clear scientific evidence of a favourable benefit/harm ratio. Reviews of the available trials on masks have not looked sufficiently at the harms but conclude that there is nil to minimal impact on reducing community transmission. Further mask mandates, whether public or private, are unlikely to have sufficient benefits to be justifiable as public health measures."

Dr Tom Jefferson, a medically trained epidemiologist, researcher and Cochrane member and campaigner for access to randomised controlled trial data, has been reviewing the evidence of the effects of physical interventions on the spread of viral respiratory infection for two decades: “I echo Robert Dingwall. There is still uncertainty about the effects of face masks. Before the pandemic, clinical trials in widely different settings and using different types of masks showed no clear-cut effect against Influenza-like illnesses (ILI) and influenza and the two available randomised trials of masks conducted on Covid-19, by Bungard et al and Abaluck et al, showed broadly the same conclusions, that masks have no effect against any type of ILI including Covid19. A number of observational studies were carried out after the 2003 SARs-1 epidemic which showed an apparent effect, but higher quality studies failed to confirm that effect.

“Until evidence from large high quality randomised controlled trials is available, we can only conclude with any certainty that there is still uncertainty about the effects of face masks in preventing transmission of respiratory infections. Not an evidence basis for a public health intervention or to reintroduce community or mandated mask wearing over the winter.”

Dr Gary Sidley, former NHS consultant clinical psychologist and author has long campaigned about the negative psychological impacts of masks, on children and for many others, the deaf or hard of hearing, abuse victims, PTSD sufferers and more: “Masking the healthy is not and has never been a harmless intervention and mask mandates destroy quality of life. We have never satisfactorily weighed up the social and psychological impact on the millions who seriously struggle to wear masks or interact with others who are, against the possible benefits to the immunosuppressed. Too late we have seen the appalling evidence of the developmental impact of forcing children to wear masks in school let alone the physical harms from mandated mask wearing.

“So why were healthy people required to wear a mask? There was no robust evidence to support the reason given, to prevent transmission. SPI-B believed they were useful for promoting “solidarity”. Arguably mask wearing is the most insidious and ethically questionable policy. A device to strengthen the behavioural-science ‘nudges’, fear inflation, shaming and scapegoating, a deliberately coercive public health messaging tool that characterised the overbearing focus of the covid-19 crisis on achieving mass compliance with the restrictions, irrespective of the harm or level risk from the virus.”

Dr Colin Axon, senior lecturer in engineering at Brunel University London has been critical of the narrow scientific view of face mask efficacy presented to the public: “What is crucial to the debate about masks is the particle journey. Once a viral particle leaves a biologically active surface its behaviour is described by the physics of airflow, then the physics and engineering of the materials that masks are made of, then it is governed by the physics of the built environment and the science of social interactions. A viral particle only becomes a bio-medical matter again once it lands on the biologically active surface of another person. All parts of this journey are important, but the non-medical elements have not been given appropriate attention in the policy discussion process.

“Without good reason, in 2020 the WHO overturned its own long-standing and well-founded advice that masks are not effective in preventing viral transmission. The debate and evidence on mask efficacy became dominated by the medical community, with a lack of attention to the physical mechanisms involved. Masks may be able to catch droplets and sputum from a cough, but what is important is that SARS CoV-2 is predominantly distributed by aerosols that are much smaller than droplets. These aerosols are carried in the flow of air as someone breathes, and are significantly smaller than the pore / perforation size of common mask materials. All common types of masks also suffer from leakage through gaps around the edges, rendering them ineffective. Any higher grade mask (really designed for specialist industrial applications) that is not professionally fitted will also likely be ineffective due to leakage. The world-wide data that is now available from places where mask mandates were imposed consistently shows no measurable effect on infection spread. Added to that, inappropriate use of various computer modelling methods has resulted in misleading evidence being used to promote the efficacy of masks in preventing transmission, which they simply do not do.”

Co-chair Graham Stringer MP said: “The new Prime Minister and Health Secretary should not impose mask wearing again unless they can produce high quality evidence that the benefits far outweigh the harms to the individual and society as a whole. Our APPG has heard from experts that this evidence does not appear to exist and so policy makers should not be reintroducing such measures on a ‘just in case’ basis. Individuals have always been, and continue to be, free to wear a mask should they so choose, and it should remain an individual choice.”

View the full minutes for this meeting, held on Monday 17 October 2022.

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