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Hang on to your face masks, top scientist advises

People wear face masks as they walk past beach huts in Saltburn-by-the-Sea. The Tees Valley is expected to be moved up to Tier 3 shortly. Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Wire

By Tess de la Mare, PA

Do not ditch the face masks just yet, the Government’s chief scientific adviser has warned, on the day the country woke to news that the very first dose of the Pfizer vaccine had been administered.

Margaret Keenan, 90, was the first person to receive the jab outside of clinical trials at University Hospital in Coventry at 6.30am on Tuesday.

Despite the good news, Sir Patrick Vallance said the UK is unlikely to get back to a semblance of normality before spring, and that we might still need our face masks next winter.

He explained that despite knowing that the vaccine prevents the virus taking hold in the body, it is not yet known if it prevents transmission among the vaccinated to the non-vaccinated.

Speaking to Sky News he said: “It’s going to take quite a long time to make sure everybody in the at-risk groups and all of the groups that are difficult to reach get vaccinated as appropriate.”

He said it was at least a month or more before you see full immunity with the vaccine, adding: “It is important we all stick to the rules in the meantime – the rules are what’s keeping the virus down.”

Sir Patrick said: “It may be that next winter even with vaccination we need measures like masks in place – we don’t know yet how good all the vaccines are going to be at preventing the transmission of the virus.”

At the start of the pandemic, shortages of medical-grade personal protective equipment (PPE) led to millions of people around the world waring fabric masks to curb the spread of the virus.

The virus is spread through tiny airborne aerosol particles from coughing, sneezing, breathing or even talking, and these particles can also gather on surfaces and be transmitted through touch.

While medical-grade masks filter out 95% of airborne particles which measure 0.3 micrometres or larger, there is a growing body of evidence showing that even a simple cloth barrier helps dramatically slow transmission rates.

A Chinese study published in late May found that mask-wearing even helps prevent infection within households.

The study of families in Beijing found the practice was 79% effective at stopping transmission before symptoms emerged in the first person infected.

Last week there was an awkward moment when deputy chief medical officer for England Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said he expected coronavirus would never disappear, to the apparent annoyance of Boris Johnson.

He said at a Downing Street press briefing: “I think it’s going to be with humankind forever.

“I think we may get to a point where coronavirus becomes a seasonal problem.

“I don’t want to draw too many parallels with flu but, possibly, that is the kind of way we would learn to live with it.”

He added: “Do I think there will come a moment when we can have a big party and throw our masks and hand sanitiser and say ‘that’s it, it’s behind us’ like the end of the war? No I don’t.”

Professor Van-Tam said that the measures we have adopted to protect ourselves “may persist for many years and that may be a good thing”.

The Prime Minister interjected: “That may be a good thing but on the other hand we may want to get back to life pretty much as close to normal.”

Prof Van-Tam later clarified: “I do not think the Government will continue to have to recommend social distancing, masks and hand sanitiser forever and a day.

“I hope we will get back to a much more normal world.”

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