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‘No masks please, we’re British:’ When it comes to face coverings, Europeans, Americans and Asians have very different views

One in five Britons said they believed masks are “not effective at all” in curtailing the spread of the coronavirus

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By Lina Saigol


Getty Images
Self-sewn face masks in a fabric store in Jena, Germany.

The U.K. government announced that nonmedical face coverings will be mandatory on public transport in England from June 15, with potential fines for noncompliance.

But a new survey of half a dozen countries that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic suggests that Brits aren’t going to be happy with these new regulations.

The authors of the Six-Country Survey on COVID-19 from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics asked 1,000 people in three Western countries (the U.S., the U.K. and Italy) and three Asian ones (China, Japan and South Korea) about how they had changed their behavior as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

The study showed that Brits pretty much stuck to social distancing rules and washing their hands, like their counterparts in the other countries surveyed. But they were only about half as likely to put on a mask.

Residents in Asian countries, already acquainted with covering their faces, were willing to increase the use of masks during the pandemic, while people living in the U.S. and Italy were quick to adopt the practice.

U.K. respondents, however, were hesitant to shroud their faces.


Source: Six-Country Survey on Covid-19 by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics

One in five Britons said they believed masks are “not effective at all” in curtailing the spread of the coronavirus — that is four times the number of Americans and more than 12 times that of South Koreans. Just one in six Britons said masks are “extremely effective.”

The British government now seems to disagree with that majority. But its policy over face masks has been far from consistent during the pandemic. Back in March, it resisted pressure to make face coverings mandatory, arguing that the science didn’t show that they would help control the virus’ spread. In early May, it recommended that people in England cover their faces in enclosed spaces where social distancing isn’t always possible and they come into contact with others that they don’t normally meet.

On Thursday, however, the government said face coverings on public transport will be compulsory from June 15 in England to reduce transmission of the disease as more people gradually start to return to work.

Read: When you can’t buy a mask, make it yourself

The mass wearing of face coverings has become one of the enduring debates of the pandemic, with governments and scientists divided over their effectiveness.

The World Health Organization has said that only people infected with COVID-19 and those caring for people with the disease need to wear masks. In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance recommending that all Americans wear some form of face covering in public places where it is hard to social distance.

U.S. President Donald Trump has refused to wear a mask, at least in public view, at the White House or other appearances. In late May, Trump lashed out at Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel after she called him a “petulant child” for refusing to wear a face mask at all times, while touring a Ford Motor Co. /zigman2/quotes/208911460/composite F +3.27% plant that has switched production to make ventilators and masks.

Don’t miss : Trump administration and Cuomo finally agree on one thing: Americans should wear face masks — a timeline of conflicting messages and policy U-turns

In a separate paper published by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics on Thursday, the authors found that face masks considerably reduced COVID-19 Cases in Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government introduced new regulations requiring residents across all 16 federal states to cover their noses and mouths while traveling on public transport to try to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic as the country loosened its lockdown restrictions.

But there are different rules and fines across regions, with some states recommending they are donned in shops and supermarkets, but not making it mandatory.

Read: Germany requires everyone to wear a face mask as coronavirus spreads

The IZA paper found that, depending on the region it analyzed, face masks reduced the cumulative number of registered COVID-19 cases between 2.3% and 13% over a period of 10 days after they became compulsory.

“Assessing the credibility of the various estimates, we conclude that face masks reduce the daily growth rate of reported infections by around 40%,” the paper stated.

The authors compared the city of Jena — the first to make face masks compulsory before the introduction at the federal level — with otherwise similar regions that had not introduced face masks as early. They found that resulted in a reduction of almost 25% in the cumulative number of reported COVID-19 cases after 20 days. The drop is greatest, larger than 50%, for those aged 60 years and above.

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Lina Saigol is the London-based head of corporate news in the Europe, Middle East and Africa regions for MarketWatch and Barron’s Group.

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