Better masks offer greater protection from infection risk, new study suggests

Healthcare professionals are asking the government to update PPE guidance

Better masks offer greater protection from infection risk, new study suggests (Photo by MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images)

The type of face mask used by healthcare workers could have a major impact on their chances of catching Covid, a new study suggests.

Research carried out at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust suggests that high quality masks could offer up to 100 per cent protection.

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At a glance: 5 key facts

– Different quality face-coverings could make a major difference in the protection that health workers have from Covid

– Staff began using higher grade masks on Covid wards to see if they would be less likely to contract Covid

– High-grade FFP3 masks can offer up to 100 per cent protection while standard surgical masks offer far less protection

– Current government guidance only states that surgical masks should be worn in Covid wards, but healthcare professionals are campaigning for change

– The study has not yet been peer-reviewed

What’s been said?

Dr Mike Weekes, of Cambridge University NHS Hospitals Foundation Trust, who also worked on the study, said: "Clearly, it's a relatively small study in one trust and so we need to see these findings replicated elsewhere.

"But given the difference in the results that we've seen, as a sort of precautionary principle effect, what we should be thinking about is changing to use FFP3 masks for anyone caring for a patient with coronavirus."

The Fresh Air NHS group, made up of consultants and doctors, wrote to new health secretary Sajid Javid, to say the new study provides yet more evidence of why the current PPE policy needs to change

They wrote: "This has important implications for healthcare worker protection as the UK copes with what is hopefully an 'exit wave', as well as trying to reduce the massive backlog of other work whilst coping with inevitable staff sickness and isolation," the group wrote.

Speaking to the BBC, Rose Gallagher, the Royal College of Nursing's (RCN) lead for infection prevention and control, said: "This important study adds even further weight to the RCN's continuing call for nursing staff to be better protected from Covid-19 and given routine access to the highest levels of respiratory protective equipment whenever they need it.

"We are still seeing cases of Covid-19, even from some who have been vaccinated, and it is vital staff are fully protected and there are no attempts to restrict or ease off on measures to further reduce the risk of infection."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "The safety of the NHS and social care staff has always been our top priority and we continue to work round the clock to deliver PPE to protect those on the frontline.

"Emerging evidence and data are continually monitored and reviewed and guidance will be amended accordingly if appropriate."

Background

Current rules set by the government stipulate that the standard surgical masks are required for healthcare workers.

However, prior to this study, many had expressed concerns that the guidance was unsuitable due to the risk of infection when using a surgical mask.

There are currently 17 NHS trusts in the UK which have decided to upgrade their PPE, despite the national policy.

Healthcare professionals have been calling for an upgrade to the policy on face-coverings for a long time.

Groups including the RCN, British Medical Association (BMA) and others have all echoed this demand.