The health secretary said it would be an “extraordinary undertaking” to provide face coverings for ordinary people amid immense pressure on supplies of protective equipment for frontline healthcare staff.
Experts from the governments scientific advisory group met yesterday to discuss whether the public should be advised to wear masks at work and on public transport as part of future efforts to ease the lockdown measures.
Ministers are expected to consider their recommendations this week before deciding whether to change the official guidance on face coverings outside of hospitals and healthcare settings.
Labours Hilary Benn pressed the health secretary Matt Hancock on whether people would be expected to source their own masks or could expect to receive protective kit from the government, which is already struggling to source PPE for the NHS.
Speaking to MPs via videolink, Mr Benn said: “It seems increasingly likely that part of what will be required to tackle this virus in future will be the wearing of masks by members of the public in certain situations.
“If the government comes to the point based on the scientific advice that that is recommended, is the governments policy to provide masks to the public, and if so, what is his plan to source them, given the difficulties we have seen with PPE supply
“Or will members of the public be expected to source their own?”
Mr Hancock replied: “We will will follow the advice, we will listen to what the SAGE advisory group says on masks, and then we will implement that.
“I cant promise that we will give everybody free masks – I mean that would be an extraordinary undertaking – and we do have to make sure that we have supplies available, especially for health and care staff where the scientific advice throughout has been that the wearing of mask is necessary in those circumstances, and weve got to make sure that provision is there for them.”
NHS leaders have sounded the alarm on recommending widespread mask usage among the British public – which is being recommended in the United States and France.
On Tuesday, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “There needs to be clear evidence that wearing masks, along with other measures, will deliver significant enough benefits to take us out of lockdown to potentially jeopardise NHS mask supply.”
Government experts are understood to be considering the benefits of home-made face coverings, such as bandanas, in preventing the spread of the illness in confined settings, such as shops and on public transport.
Cloth coverings will not protect the wearer from picking up Covid-19 but could prevent them from spreading droplets containing the virus to others, particularly if the person is asymptomatic.
The World Health Organisation issued guidance earlier this month which warned that widespread use of mask could lead to people ignoring other social distancing measures.
The prime minister’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “SAGE are finalising their advice and it will be presented to ministers shortly.
“Once ministers have looked at it and reached a decision we will announce what it is.”