Ministers should consider making the wearing of face masks mandatory in workplaces, schools and crowded outdoor spaces to help control the new COVID-19 variant, government advisers have said.
The variant could make up 63% of cases in England and 77% in London, figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest.
Social distancing and hygiene measures will need a “step change in rigour” to compensate for the “significantly increased transmission risk” associated with the variant, according to a report by the behavioural science group that reports to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
The two-metre rule will probably need to be re-instated and people who have been vaccinated should be urged not to compromise on protection measures, said the paper by the Environmental Modelling Group, the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours and the Transmission Group.
The advisers said more measures to reduce contact between people are “likely to be necessary” – such as extending Tier 4 restrictions or introducing a national lockdown.
Other suggestions include “changing the operation” of schools and universities and increased travel restrictions between regions and internationally.
Minutes from a meeting involving ministers and SAGE on 22 December revealed that members warned schools needed to be shut to reduce transmission.
Even a full lockdown similar to the first shutdown last spring would be unlikely to reduce the R number to less than 1.
The Environmental Modelling Group, the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours and the Transmission Group report said: “As a consequence of the uncertainty around the mechanisms for increased transmission, enhanced mitigation measures are likely to be necessary including: reconsidering the 2m rule and requiring that where regular interactions less than 2m are necessary this should include correctly worn face coverings.”
The group suggested enhancing ventilation measures and “reinforcing the importance of using face coverings, including in settings where they are not currently mandated, such as education, workplaces, and crowded outdoor spaces”.
“This is important even when people are more than 2m apart,” they said.
The advisers recommended “specifying higher performance face coverings and masks”, which comes as some campaigners have criticised the effectiveness of re-usable face masks sold by retailers.
Multi-layer face masks are more effective than single-layer masks, they said.
A “snugger fit to the face” and ensuring people wear them correctly by covering both their nose and mouth are also important factors in reducing transmission.
The new variant is estimated to spread up to 70% faster, but SAGE said there is “no evidence” of changes to “routes of transmission” or how long it lives on surfaces.
Government advisers said a campaign of “positive feedback” should be launched that tells people their effects to control the virus are working but need to be intensified.
There were 55,892 new coronavirus cases reported on Thursday and a further 964 deaths in the UK.
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