Covid-19 response

Why wearing a face covering can make a difference

As lockdown continues to ease, a face mask should be an everyday item such as phones and keys. It is becoming an increasingly important tool in combating Covid-19.

Woman with brown hair tied up, wearing a grey jumper, putting on a blue surgical face covering.

By Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health, and Lois King, PhD student

Published 02 July 2020

After 12 weeks of lockdown, it’s great to finally have more shops opening and more interaction with other people. And none of us want to go back into lockdown if cases start to rise again. One simple way to slow transmission is the use of a face covering when it is not possible to distance from others, such as on public transport or in shops. This can be a bandana, a cloth home-made one, or even a scarf. Just make sure it covers your nose and mouth.

Recent research from a German study showed that the daily growth rate of coronavirus infections fell by 40 per cent after mask-use was made compulsory, suggesting that masks can significantly reduce the spread of infection by blocking droplets escaping from our mouths and noses. These findings were similar to a study from the University of Edinburgh1, which showed that masks can limit how far exhaled breath travels out by as much as 90 per cent.

An elder man looking through some bananas in a supermarket, while wearing a white face covering

Silent carriers

Coronavirus spreads through droplets usually from someone who is coughing, sneezing, breathing or speaking. We now know that some people can be silent carriers for the virus and feel completely fine, but still spread the virus to others.

This could even be you right now. So to make sure that you protect others from your droplets, just pop on a mask when you’re less than two metres away from someone else, and they should also wear a face covering to protect you as well.

Even from a psychological standpoint, seeing masked faces in public and wearing one ourselves serves as a reminder that we are still in a pandemic and to keep at a safe distance from others. It also reminds us to avoid touching our noses and faces which is another way the virus can spread from hands to inside the body.

Some groups of people cannot wear a mask for health reasons, such as those with severe breathing problems, which is worth keeping in mind in case you see people not wearing face coverings and are wondering why.

A number of people sitting on a public bus, two of them are wearing white face coverings.

Keys, phone and a face covering

And Scotland is not alone in this. Before the outbreak of Covid-19, masks were seldom seen outside of East Asia, where face coverings are worn regularly to protect from bad air pollution – and where they also have experience with previous coronavirus outbreaks such as Mers and Sars.

Now Europe is catching up, with countries like Germany, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic making mask-use compulsory in enclosed public spaces such as shops and on public transport. In the UK, masks are now widely available for the general public in stores and supermarkets, while some people have made their own cotton masks at home. 

As Scotland moves into the next phase, and the easing of lockdown continues, little behavioural changes by all of us can make a big difference. So just as you grab your keys and your phone, remember to also bring your face covering with you when leaving home. More than ever, it is important that we think of our society as a whole and not just ourselves.

About the authors

Woman with long black hair, looking into the camera and smiling

Professor Devi Sridhar is Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh's Usher Institute. Lois King is a PhD student with a masters degree in public health and BSC in biomedical sciences.

Staff profile


This article was first published in The Scotsman on 01 July 2020

Coronavirus: If you can't socially distance, wear a face mask or use a bandana or scarf

References: Face coverings can reduce Covid-19 transmission risk

All images via Getty Images