Why are we wearing masks?
Like so much of what's happened this year it's easy to forget how masks became orthodoxy and proliferated across the land.
You may recall that they weren't mandated at all in Spring when Covid did its worst. That was because evidence of their effectiveness for reducing viral transmission in the community was described by the WHO as weak and therefore they did not recommend such a policy. The evidence available comes from lab based tests rather than any sort of practical test on a population going about their lives.
So what changed? You could be forgiven for thinking the science did, given the readiness with which Governments like our own made masks mandatory once the Spring wave had all but finished. In fact the science hasn't changed. What changed was the WHO guidance on masks and by their own admission this guidance only changed because of political lobbying.
In other words Governments urged the WHO to support mask wearing in the community to lend credence to their desire for issuing mask wearing mandates. The WHO did so and Governments like our own introduced mandatory mask wearing rules.
I don't wish to get into the motivations of governments for doing so. I can't evidence my suspicions or pretend every government shares the same reasoning, so the exercise would be futile. Let us instead consider the evidence surrounding masks and their role in reducing viral transmission.
A good starting point is to consider what a mask is and what it isn't. A mask isn't a barrier but it is a filter. It will stop the ingress and egress of particles bigger than the gaps they contain. Viruses like Coronavirus are so small that only certain surgical masks such as the N95 used in hospitals are effective at preventing their movement across a filter. Even then their effectiveness can only be demonstrated in lab conditions with strict guidance on their application, use, removal and disposal.
You may recall that when mandatory mask wearing was introduced in the UK no guidance was given to us regarding what sort of mask or filter might be appropriate. In fact the government told us pretty much anything would do; you could pull a scarf up over your face, whatever.
The flimsy nature of this guidance actually relates to the limited, lab based evidence there's always been for non-medical masks stopping virus transmission in the community. The evidence that's so weak the WHO didn't recommend mask wearing until leaned on by political lobbying.
It's important to understand what this evidence is and to do so we need to introduce the concept of aerosols and droplets. If we assume someone with Covid is expelling infectious virus from their nose and mouth, they will be doing so via aerosols and droplets. Aerosols are particles so small that your mask is no more likely to stop them getting through than a chain link fence is likely to keep wasps out your garden. Droplets are just that; larger moisture laden particles you expel in your breath, sneezes and cough. If you have Covid then some of the virus you're expelling will be contained in these droplets and lab tests show that many face coverings will be able to stop larger droplets before they enter the air and potentially another person's mouth or nose.
Some laboratory tests have also suggested the range of an aerosol blast may be slightly limited by using masks. But this is something of a red herring given the aerosols will continue to move and circulate once expelled from the body by an initial blast. The important thing to bear in mind is that masks do not stop aerosols. Social distancing is your best bet for marginally increasing your chance of avoiding the aerosols of an infected person.
So even though we don't really know how much virus infected people expel or at what stages of their infection, it surely follows that wearing something that can stop a proportion of virus particles getting out into the air is a good thing, right? That's where most politicians and people seem to be. That's the nature of the science behind claims that simple mask wearing by the public will help slow viral transmission.
At this point you might be wondering why the WHO and scientific bodies the World over described the evidence as weak, even when taking into account how human behaviour in the community differs from a regimented lab experiment. You might acknowledge for example that some people won't wear masks correctly, winds and environments will effect things, but if they stop some of the virus getting into circulation then surely it's a good thing?
Well the answer is probably not and to arrive at that conclusion you have to think about what happens to the virus once it's expelled from the human body and how masks interact with it.
Before that, let's start with what we know. Aerosols and droplets are expelled from our bodies into the air and may float around on currents or settle on a surface. Droplets vary in size tremendously and the larger ones will be heavier and likely to fall to the ground, but they won't necessarily stay there for long. Evaporation of the droplet occurs, often in seconds and the liberated virus is then free to circulate. It will usually only survive a few hours before it's destroyed by UV light or other environmental factors. Sometimes it will find a surface or environment that allows it to persist for longer and when on a surface it becomes a source of touch contamination. That's why we're all quite wisely continuing to wash our hands and the more cautious among us may still be washing groceries and so forth.
By now you'll be familiar with the idea of "protecting others" by wearing a mask. So let's consider what happens if you're infected with Covid, emitting it via droplets and aerosols. The aerosols pass through your mask virtually unhindered, the droplets large enough to be filtered by your mask will stick to your mask and not enter the wider environment. At this point a surprising amount of people seem to stop thinking, as if that's the end of it. But that droplet on your mask will evaporate too. Evaporation doesn't magically remove the virus, nor does the mask somehow keep the virus trapped in place. After droplet evaporation the virus particle is free to leave your mask in either direction and will likely do so when you move, inhale or exhale. We're back to wasps and chain link fences.
Wearing the mask hasn't removed any virus from the environment. It has acted as a brief intermediary unless you are regularly changing and binning masks all day long. Even binning your mask only removes from circulation any virus still trapped by a droplet at that moment in time. But of course we know people aren't regularly changing and binning their masks to even achieve that modest benefit. Rigid lab based procedures will never be replicated by a public going about their normal business. Worse still we now have two ways in which the virus can be spread, there's the unavoidable airborne threat and the newly introduced touch contamination threat. When you adjust or take off that mask then touch other things before washing your hands properly, you are potentially spreading the virus to other surfaces where it may remain or circulate again.
Worse still is that masks provide a stable environment in which the virus can survive far longer on average than if it had simply been released into the air. This means that with widespread mask wearing and insufficient changing or disposing of them, we're building up the amount of virus that's around us. Virus that can leave your mask by touch or air once evaporation of the droplet has concluded.
Now let's change tack and consider we're a healthy person wearing a mask who encounters an infected person wearing a mask. Let's imagine they cough or sneeze and their mask stops a droplet containing the virus. People don't expel droplets without emitting aerosols and the sad fact is that in this scenario there will be a cloud of aerosols all around them that your mask can do nothing to stop. Your best defence here is to have kept a good distance away from them.
Let's imagine your mask has stopped the ingress of a virus laden droplet which escaped the infected person's ill fitted mask. Well that means you're almost certainly in a fog of aerosols. They travel faster and further than droplets because they are far smaller and lighter, not weighed down by moisture. You've also got a source of viral contamination on your face that you can touch and spread when you adjust or remove your mask. You've also got the prospect of that droplet evaporating and the virus going on its merry way again; perhaps down your throat, perhaps into the air outside perhaps into your car or home depending on where you take your mask next.
Now let's consider some of the mask behaviours we're witnessing right now. Let's take the example of pubs and restaurants, where you have to wear your mask to move around within the building but may remove it when sat at your table. We know that most people will be reusing a mask they've worn in countless places after coming into contact with countless people. We know that the mask can sustain the virus for days and can be released at any time post droplet evaporation by something as simple as movement, breathing in or breathing out. And here we are, whipping them out of our pockets, putting them on and off again, potentially dislodging virus we caught in a droplet from the numerous locations we've worn this mask before.
How many people come back from the shops and hang their mask up with their car keys at home? Let's imagine their mask has caught some virus in a droplet. The wearer has almost certainly been exposed to aerosols and now they have introduced a source of contamination to the home, both contact and airborne as the droplet evaporates. The idea of masks controlling viral transmission in real life is almost entirely illusionary.
It's increasingly common to see people wandering around outside with masks on while not going anywhere near another human being. This is simply madness. They're not going to protect anyone else, they're not going to encounter droplets which when airborne evaporate in seconds. Their mask serves absolutely no purpose. It's not unusual to see people alone in their own cars wearing masks either and I'm afraid this sort of lunacy is an inevitable by-product of a scientifically illiterate Government and Media terrorising our citizens.
There never has been any compelling scientific evidence that mask wearing in the community will slow viral transmission. Lab based evidence that a correctly fitted mask will briefly intercept some droplets is all that our current policies are based on. That evidence simply doesn't translate into a beneficial policy for a human population. This is why the WHO have consistently stated that the evidence for mask wearing slowing viral transmission in the community is weak. If anything I think they're probably overstating the case. The science hasn't changed, nor is it likely to. Mandatory mask wearing came about due to political lobbying and is a political decision.
If you still believe mask wearing limits virus transmission then I simply urge you to look at case figures from countries around the World and find the point in time when masks were made mandatory. You will see no signal to suggest a positive impact anywhere. If our government was in any way serious about their efficacy they would at the very least be stressing the message of regular disposal, better still providing masks that can stop viruses. They're not serious, they say you can just pull a scarf up over your face, they say nothing about regularly changing or washing them.
It's worth bearing in mind that they have repeatedly refused to set out any goal or criteria for rescinding mandatory mask wearing. If you want to go back to a World where you don't wear a mask it is you who has to make the change. Stop wearing one, say you're exempt. Eventually a critical mass of people will do likewise and this desperate charade of control will end with literally no effect on transmission rates. It's time to get some of your life back.