People won't be ordered to wear masks or WFH to help NHS, government insists

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People wear face masks whilst out shopping in Hove, East Sussex (Image: Adam Gerrard / Daily Mirror)
People wear face masks whilst out shopping in Hove, East Sussex (Image: Adam Gerrard / Daily Mirror)

There are no plans to order people to wear masks or work from home to ease winter pressure on the NHS, the government has insisted.

Reports today suggested more “Covid-style guidance measures” could be introduced, if surging Covid, flu and Strep A push the health service further towards collapse.

That could include guidance to wear masks on public transport even if you’re not ill, and guidance to work from home if you can, “especially if ill”, according to i News.

But any new guidance would not be mandatory, sources told both that newspaper and the Mirror.

A government spokesperson said of the story in i News: “It is inaccurate to say we are considering implementing any such measures.”

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However, it’s thought this statement was referring to the idea of Covid-style restrictions. Extra voluntary “guidance" is always possible, because not only is it issued by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) (rather than the Health Department), a lot of similar guidance already exists.

While government sources have not ruled out the possibility of more guidance, it is thought none is planned “imminently” and if any was issued, it would be optional.

People won't be ordered to wear masks or WFH to help NHS, government insistsWhile government sources have not ruled out the possibility of more guidance, it is thought none is planned “imminently” and if any was issued, it would be optional (Tom Maddick SWNS)

There is already lots of voluntary guidance from the UKHSA - and it’s been in place since Covid restrictions were lifted last year.

That guidance includes wearing a face covering in “crowded and enclosed spaces” in winter, when “there are a lot of respiratory viruses circulating”.

It also suggests masking up “when you are coming into close contact with someone at higher risk” from Covid or flu, or “when COVID-19 rates are high and you will be in close contact with other people”.

The existing guidance also urges all people to “let fresh air in if meeting others indoors”, “wash your hands” and “clean your surroundings frequently”.

For people who actually have a “respiratory infection”, like flu or Covid, the existing guidance suggests they should “try to stay at home” and “try to work from home if you can”.

If people who are already ill have to leave home, they could “wear a well-fitting face covering made with multiple layers or a surgical face mask”, the guidance suggests.

They could also “avoid crowded places such as public transport, large social gatherings, or anywhere that is enclosed or poorly ventilated”, it says.

People won't be ordered to wear masks or WFH to help NHS, government insistsA source told i News: "We're not there yet, but guidance for everyone, ill or not, to wear face masks on public transport is not really going to inconvenience people" (Getty Images)

It comes after the UKHSA issued guidance this week for children to stay home from school if they are unwell and have a fever.

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At the same time, UKHSA chief medical advisor Prof Susan Hopkins urged adults to “try to stay home when unwell and if you do have to go out, wear a face covering”.

That sparked fears of a return to mask mandates, with Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne branding them “dystopian” and “filthy rags”.

Yet No10 insisted it was “not compulsory” to wear a mask when ill - and Prof Hopkins’ comments appeared to just reflect existing guidance.

i News reported officials had drawn up a “watered-down version of social distancing, urging people to avoid crowded indoor spaces”.

One source told the newspaper: "There's a list of potential measures. Lockdowns and school closures have been ruled out by ministers.

“However, softer, less intrusive measures could soon be introduced if the NHS is at risk of collapse. The emphasis is on guidance.”

Another said: “We're not there yet, but guidance for everyone, ill or not, to wear face masks on public transport is not really going to inconvenience people.

“It would also make perfect sense to ask people who can work from home to do so if the NHS need us all to support them through this busy period.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are working hard with the NHS to tackle the pressures faced this winter.

“We are working tirelessly to ensure people get the care they need, backed by up to £14.1 billion additional funding for health and social care over the next two years.

“This winter, the government has provided an extra £500 million to speed up hospital discharge and free up beds – and the NHS is creating the equivalent of at least 7,000 more beds to help reduce A&E waits and get ambulances back on the road.”

Dan Bloom

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