Over 2,500 doctors, scientists and healthcare professionals are among over 10,000 people supporting an open letter calling on NHS bosses to end the mask mandates that are still in force in many U.K. hospitals.
According to campaign group Smile Free, which is behind the letter, up to a fifth of U.K. hospitals are still insisting on masks. The letter calls on NHS Chief Executives to issue new guidance explicitly discouraging the practice. Here it is in full.
You are a leader within an organisation, the NHS, whose overarching purpose is to optimise the health and wellbeing of the population it serves. So why are you condoning the persistence – in some of your hospitals – of a practice that is both ineffectual and harmful, namely the requirement for staff, patients and visitors to wear a face mask?
It has long been recognised that masks offer no appreciable protection against viral infections (see here for a review), even when worn by healthcare professionals in surgical settings (see here and here). A recent Cochrane review – the gold standard of scientific evaluation – reached the same conclusion and new research has found that masks made “no discernible difference” to Covid transmission rates in hospitals.
Wasting precious NHS resources on an ineffectual practice is troubling enough, but of even more concern is the damage you are inflicting upon your staff and service users. Routine masking, particularly for long periods of time, is increasingly recognised to be associated with a wide range of physical, psychological and social harms (see here for an overview). Furthermore, a recent research study highlighted the potential risks of elevated carbon dioxide levels associated with long-term mask wear, particularly for children, adolescents and pregnant mothers.
While the scientific evidence is important, it is the human costs of routine masking in healthcare settings that forcefully bring home the dire consequences of this irrational practice: the exclusion of the hard-of-hearing; the re-traumatising of the historically abused; the increased risk of falls in the elderly; the exacerbation of confusion in the already confused; the aggravation of the autistic, anxious and panic-prone; the marginalisation of already-stigmatised groups; and the impediment to the goal of soothing the frightened child or suicidal teenager. Faceless interactions impede the development of healing relationships. Humane healthcare, delivered with demonstrable warmth and compassion, will always be more effective than the robotic version emitted by a faceless professional hidden behind a veneer of sterility.
Given that many hospitals have already returned to normality, some of your healthcare venues are now outliers in persisting with the unscientific and pervasively damaging mass-masking phenomenon. The vague guidance issued by NHS England and NHS Improvement on June 1st 2022, for example, effectively left this decision to local policymakers. You are presiding over a postcode lottery, with masking decisions made by individuals for arbitrary reasons. Consequently, many – often vulnerable – service users continue to endure a suboptimal service.
We are almost one year on from the previous guidance issued by NHS England and in that time all that has happened is that the case for masking – already flimsy, at best – has been discredited even further. We are at the point now where the officially sanctioned continuation of what amounts to magical thinking in some of our hospitals discredits the NHS.
It is time to move on from masks, once and for all.
We therefore urge you, as the Chief Executive of the NHS in your country, to do the right thing and show leadership by immediately issuing clear new guidance explicitly discouraging any routine requirement for staff, patients or visitors to cover their faces in healthcare settings.
You can read and sign the open letter here.