NHS supplier urges public not to buy out medical masks

The public has been urged not to buy medical face masks so that stocks can be preserved for the NHS, following scientists’ advice to the government saying cloth coverings could be worn to stem the spread of coronavirus. The advice from Arco, one of the UK’s leading distributors of personal protective equipment (PPE), which supplies the NHS and other frontline services, came amid fears of stockpiling by anxious members of the public. Arco said that medical masks should be kept for key workers in clinical settings. Sage, the UK’s scientific advisory group on emergencies, met on Tuesday to discuss the benefits of face masks for the public, after health authorities in countries, including the US, recommended the use of homemade versions, including scarves. Sage’s advice has now been sent to the health secretary for consideration, with a decision likely to be announced next week. The advisory group has been split over how effective coverings can be in blocking transmission of thevirus, due to a lack of peer-reviewed research. Speaking on Thursday, the government’schief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who chairs Sage, described the evidence of the benefits of face masks as “quite variable and quite weak”. Arco said the demand for masks was unprecedented and that it was providing advice to customers to ensure that it only issued the higher grade of PPE where necessary. The company’s marketing director, Adam Young, said it was sourcing limited supplies of medical masks. “The Type IIR and the FFP2s are most suitable for clinical use and as supply is limited we would recommend that the public does not use these, in order to protect stocks for those in clinical situations. “We are managing our supply chain to ensure that protective equipment reaches those that need it most, and is not diverted from health care and frontline responders. As such, we are unable to supply products direct to members of the public.” Disposable face masks that claim to meet World Health Organization specifications for protection against coronavirus can be bought with ease online, from businesses including UK Meds. The online pharmacy tells customers that FFP2 face masks are available “while stocks last” and cost £9.45 each. One source with knowledge of the Sage recommendations summarised the advice as: “Keep medical masks for the NHS and other key workers, but there may be some small marginal benefit for some people under some small set of circumstances to wear a cloth mask.” They said the advice was cautious because of the importance of preserving medical masks for NHS and care workers. It is understood that the advice does not go into detail about the circumstances in which coverings may be useful, but that this could include travel on public transport, in small enclosed shops, and in other places where physical distancing is difficult. As uncertainty over the UK’s policy continued, businesses specialising in face masks designed to protect users against air pollution and pollen, traffic exhaust fumes when cycling and dust produced through DIY projects have reported a sharp rise in sales. Christopher Dobbing founded the Cambridge Mask Company when he lived in China, after seeing children fall ill through air pollution. The masks, which include an air filter, sell for about £25 and can be worn for 200 to 300 hours, or three to six months. They are designed for personal use and are not suitable for use in clinical settings. Dobbing said: “We’re completely sold out until August now. Our sales are about 12 times higher than normal and that’s with a 10-week wait to get a mask. We would expect it to be 20 to 30 times higher if we actually had the stock.” The company has seen three big spikes in sales since the start of the year. The first was from China and Hong Kong when the disease began to spread late January. The second was from Europe when it hit Spain and Italy in March, and the third was when the Centres for Disease Control changed its guidance in the US earlier this month. Germany’s announcement on Wednesday that people should wear masks on public transport prompted another surge. After consideration by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, the advice from Sage will be discussed by the Covid-19 committee – which besides Hancock includes the first secretary of state, Dominic Raab, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove. It may subsequently be considered by a wider Cobra meeting as well. A Downing Street spokesman said: “They have finalised their advice. Ministers will now be reviewing this to decide on any further action that might be needed.”

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