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Oxford study shows masks beneficial as university plans to require their use in Michaelmas

An Oxford study released last week found that masks and cloth face coverings are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19. The University of Oxford plans to require the use of face coverings as part of its preparations for Michaelmas 2020.

The study by Oxford University’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science investigated the effectiveness of a range of face coverings, comparing policies from across the world and considering behavioural factors influencing their use.

The research found that after the declaration of the pandemic in mid-March, 70 countries had immediately required the wearing of masks. This number has now increased to 120 countries with most requiring the use of masks in all public spaces.

The Director of the Leverhulme Centre, Professor Melinda Mills, has said, “The evidence is clear the people should wear masks to reduce virus transmission and protect themselves, with most countries recommending the public to wear them. Yet clear policy recommendations that the public should broadly wear them has been unclear and inconsistent in some countries such as England.”

The key findings of the study are that:

  • Cloth face coverings protect both the wearer and those around them
  • Social distancing and hand hygiene should be promoted alongside the wider use of masks
  • Behavioural factors shape how the public respond to instructions from experts and politicians, and clear messaging is essential to the widespread use of masks and coverings

Ultimately, the study has found that alongside the washing of hands and maintaining social distancing, face masks and coverings have become one of the most extensively used non-pharmaceutical methods of reducing the transmission of respiratory infections. However, there must be a focus on how well the mask fits the wearer’s face, ensuring that the fabric used is not too loosely woven.

Professor Mills added, “The public is confused about wearing face masks and coverings because they have heard the scientific evidence is inconclusive and advice from the WHO and others has changed. People also feared they might be competing for scarce PPE resources and they need clear advice on what to wear, when to wear them and how to wear them.” 

Although every country has slightly different rules, the World Health Organization still maintains that fabric masks should be worn by the general public where widespread transmission is possible or social distancing cannot be maintained. In the UK, masks are required on public transport or when visiting a hospital, as well as in enclosed public spaces where it is not possible to observe social distancing rules.

The UK Government has also announced that from 24 July, face coverings will be mandatory in shops, with those who do not comply facing a fine of up to £100. In the United States, the Center for Disease Control recommends that cloth face coverings should be worn in public areas where people are unable to socially distance. In Asia, the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China has asked for people to use disposable masks, including for healthy people, and especially when in close contact with others.

As colleges tentatively plan to reopen their doors in Michaelmas to students from countries all over the world, there will be a particular focus on preventing the spread of the virus within the university.

The university has already planned to implement safety measures for the health and wellbeing of all students. As part of this, they have announced that face coverings will be required during face-to-face teaching and in indoor shared spaces – with only limited exceptions.

Guidelines on social distancing will likely come into play along with regulations about what events can be held, how many students are able to interact with one another at once, and what facilities they are able to use. Plans to place students into ‘households’ in college accommodation are also in the works. Furthermore, there will be assistance available for those self-isolating and if students are unable to take part in face-to-face teaching.

Most predictions, however, continue to be speculation. While the university has confirmed that it is planning to reopen to students in October, more specific details will be confirmed in the coming months in accordance with evolving government guidelines. 

The full study from Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science can be found here

Anvee Bhutani

Anvee Bhutani is Senior Media Editor of The Oxford Blue and was formerly both News Editor and Events Director. She is a penultimate year student at Magdalen College reading Human Sciences and is originally from San Francisco, California.