Pedestrians in Regent Street, London: the Royal Society’s president blames inconsistent government guidance for the low take-up of face coverings © Henry Nichols/Reuters

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Senior scientists issued an urgent call on Tuesday for Britons to protect themselves and others against coronavirus infection by wearing face coverings, which they said had a much lower uptake in the UK than in the US and elsewhere in Europe.

The Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of sciences, issued two separate reports that emphasise the benefits of face masks for reducing the risk of infection both for the wearer and for people around them.

“The UK is way behind many countries in terms of wearing masks and issuing clear policies and guidelines about mask wearing for the public,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society.

“The public have taken to handwashing and distancing but remain sceptical about face coverings,” Sir Venki added. “You only need to go on public transport, where they are supposed to be mandatory, to see how many people are ignoring this new rule based on the growing body of evidence that wearing a mask will help protect others — and might even protect you.”

The first report is a new review of scientific research on mask wearing from around the world. “The evidence for the benefit of wearing face coverings in protecting others from infection is becoming clearer all the time,” said its co-author, Paul Edelstein of the University of Pennsylvania.

25% Share of Britons wearing masks in public places, compared with 83% in Italy and 66% in the US

“In fact, we have now identified convincing decades-old and apparently forgotten evidence, from the time when surgical masks were made of cloth and were reusable, showing that they help to prevent transmission of airborne infectious agents,” Prof Edelstein said.

The second report, issued jointly by the Royal Society and British Academy, looked at the behavioural science of mask wearing. It said that at the end of April just 25 per cent of people in the UK wore masks in public places, compared with 83 per cent in Italy, 66 per cent in the US and 64 per cent in Spain.

The figures may have changed in recent weeks but people today remain more reluctant to wear masks in the UK than in other western countries, according to the Royal Society. Sir Venki said an important reason was inconsistent guidance from the UK government.

Melinda Mills, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford and lead author of the second report, said: “It isn’t the public’s fault for not wearing masks in the UK. Rather, consistent policies and effective public messaging is vital, which have even differed across England, Scotland and Wales.

“We have seen that people in countries like Italy, the US and Spain, without a previous history of mask wearing, have rapidly adopted face coverings during the Covid-19 period largely because the authorities provided them with a consistent policy and clear guidelines to understand why they should wear them.”

In the US, although President Donald Trump refuses to wear a mask, the Centers for Disease Control has issued strong guidance to do so. Many states have made face coverings mandatory in public.

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