By Paul Waugh
Coronavirus has changed everything. Make sense of it all with the Waugh Zone, our evening politics briefing. Sign up now.
Keir Starmer has backed calls for the government to formally recommend people wear face masks on transport and in workplaces where social distancing is difficult.
In a significant ramping up of pressure on the government, the Labour leader’s spokesperson said ministers should urgently look at the issue as an extra weapon in the fight against the spread of Covid-19.
Masks wouldn’t stop wearers catching the virus, but could help those who have the disease and are “asymptomatic” from spreading it to others. Several countries including Germany are advising the public to wear masks.
Health secretary Matt Hancock and other ministers are due to meet on Thursday to decide whether to recommend the wearing of face-coverings in confined spaces on trains, buses and Tubes, as well as workplaces where the two-metre physical distancing advice is difficult to follow.
The government’s scientific advisory group on emergencies (Sage) met on Tuesday to discuss their latest advice on masks for the general public.
Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam has said that if there is any risk of taking mask supplies away from NHS and social care staff, that is “a line we are not going to cross”.
But a growing number of doctors believe that while surgical masks should be reserved just for frontline staff, other coverings like scarves, bandanas and makeshift masks made from t-shirts can offer extra ways to help stop the spread of the disease.
Starmer’s spokesperson pointed to the example of Germany, where the public are to be advised to wear masks as it comes out of lockdown.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that other countries are looking at face masks as part of their responses to the virus,” he said.
“This is an issue that Sadiq Khan has raised, and Keir agrees with Sadiq that this needs to be a matter that the government should consider, based on scientific and medical advice.”
London mayor Khan, Liverpool mayor Steve Rotheram and Tony Blair have all called for public mask-wearing as an extra measure.
The German state of Saxony has made masks compulsory in shops and on public transport, while Spain is giving them out to commuters.
The World Health Organisation points out that mask-wearing offers no extra protection but some doctors say it is useful for those who don’t realise they have the virus.
Hancock refused to rule out new guidance when asked about the issue on Tuesday. “On the use of face masks we are advised by the science and we listen to what the scientists say.
“There was a meeting of Sage […] I look forward to hearing from that and then ministers making decisions based on the science.”
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said: “Securing the supply of masks, when there is huge global demand, is crucial. This must be a key consideration.
“If the government is going to consider advising the general public to wear face masks it must fully assess the impact on the NHS.”
Starmer, who made his debut as Labour leader at Prime Minister’s Questions earlier, also supports calls by Manchester Metro Mayor Andy Burnham for all regions of the UK to ease the ‘lockdown’ at the same time.
“Andy is right, this i s a national criss and therefore requires a national response,” his spokesman said.