Calls are growing in Germany for the government to implement mandatory wearing of a face mask to help counter the spread of Covid-19.
After Austria ordered shoppers to cover their mouths and noses in supermarkets, increasing numbers of regional officials in neighbouring Germany are urging the federal government to introduce a similar rule. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have also just made masks mandatory.
On Tuesday, the eastern city of Jena became the first German municipality to order mask use in shops and on public transport, though authorities are encouraging people to sew their own, or wear a protective cloth, rather than seek out medical masks which are in short supply.
The German health minister, Jens Spahn, said he saw no reason to oblige people to wear masks, “but I recognise the growing willingness of people to wear masks out of solidarity for other people”.
Winfried Kretschmann, the premier of Baden-Württemberg, which is one of the worst-hit states in Germany, said he supported the idea of home-sewn masks, and would raise the subject at a meeting of state leaders with Angela Merkel on Wednesday. “At the very least they serve as spit protectors, reducing the risk of infecting fellow citizens through passing on the droplets,” he said.
It is thought that as the number of confirmed infections continues to rise across Europe, people could soon be following the example of many east Asians in their use of face masks.
Earlier this week, the head of the German association of supermarkets, Nils Busch-Petersen, appealed to shoppers to wear masks, or some form of mouth and nose protection, for the safety of workers, who he said needed to know that shoppers were making an effort to keep them safe. German supermarkets have already taken measures such as putting cashiers behind perspex windows and employing a person at the entrance to disinfect every supermarket trolley.
“The more people who wear [masks] voluntarily, the more they are protecting others,” Busch-Petersen said.
Across the country, people are making masks at home, using instructions from the internet.
Costume makers employed by now-closed opera houses have also started making medically approved masks for doctors and nurses. Some hospitals have issued local appeals for donations of cotton masks that can be washed at 90C.
The World Health Organization has however sounded a note of warning, saying that the wearing of masks by anyone other than at-risk groups can pose more of an infection risk than not wearing them.
Michael Ryan, the head of its health emergencies programme, said this week that wearing a mask can provide a false sense of security and divert attention from hygiene measures, such as handwashing. Touching the outside of the mask can also make it less effective.
“We don’t generally recommend the wearing of masks in public by otherwise well individuals because it has not up to now been associated with any particular benefit,” Ryan said.
He stressed however that the WHO does recommend the wearing of masks by people with Covid-19 to prevent its spread, by home caregivers tending those who are sick, and by those on the frontline, such as nurses and doctors.
A leading voice on medical matters in Germany, the Social Democrats’ health expert, Karl Lauterbach, said the benefits of masks were “grossly underestimated” and encouraged their use, “on condition that there are enough masks and that medical personnel are not missing out on them as a result”.
Lothar Wieler, the president of the Robert Koch Institute, the government’s main public health advisory body, said on Tuesday a distinction had to be made between mouth and nose protection and the filtering facepieces worn by medical personnel, which hold viruses back.
“Mouth-nose protection serves to protect other people, so that if you as the wearer are infected yourself and you cough or sneeze, the droplets don’t travel so far, which makes sense,” Wieler said. “We recommended it from the very start [of the outbreak] and continue to do so.”
He said people wearing face protection were also less likely to touch their faces.
Increasing numbers are catching on to what has already become a trend, particularly among celebrities. Some designers have taken up the challenge and are making masks with catchy patterns and designs.