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Covid France: Some masks less effective against UK variant

A leading health body has advised against the use of some fabric masks that offer lower levels of protection against the highly contagious new strain

19 January 2021
Colourful face masks hanging in a window. France Covid-19: Some masks less effective against UK variantThe HCSP has advised against using home-made or artisanal masks which have no safety categorisation
By Joanna York

French health body le Haute conseil de la santé publique (HCSP) has recommended that people in France avoid using some fabric masks, in light of the spread of the UK Covid variant. 

Co-President of the HCSP Dr Didier Lepelletier told news source BFMTV yesterday: “As new variants, which are more contagious, spread in Europe, the modes of transmission have not changed. This raises the question of the category of masks we should recommend to the general public.” 

The UK variant is thought to be 50-70% more contagious than other Covid variants. 

Figures released by Inserm on January 16 (using data from up to January 10) found that the UK variant represented around 1.4% of all positive tests in France. This is expected to increase in the coming weeks.

Category 1 masks advised

Official guidelines from the HCSP will follow this weekend. For now, Dr Lepelletier advised that people use category 1 fabric masks rather than category 2 masks “which filter a little less well”. 

He also advised against using “artisanal” and home-made fabric masks with no categorisation.

Category 1 masks are made by industrial producers and conform to standards that make them as effective as surgical masks. Studies by standardisation agency AFNOR show that they filter 90% of particles, whereas category 2 masks filter 70%.

All masks show their categorisation on the label.


Home-made better than no mask

The HCSP is not advising that people use FFP2 masks which offer up to 92% filtration, and are generally for medical use. 

To be effective FFP2, masks must also be completely watertight. Dr Lepelletier said: “for the general population, I don’t think that would be reasonable.”  

The HCSP also said that while category 1 masks are best, it is still better to wear a category 2 or artisanal mask than no mask at all, and to wear that mask correctly. Dr Lepelletier added: “Masks worn below the nose are no longer acceptable."

Other barrier measures also needed

As well as more specifications for masks, Dr Lepelletier also called for all social distancing rules to be “applied and monitored”.

This includes measures such as cleaning surfaces, airing enclosed spaces, hand washing and barrier gestures. “Thinking that we can change only one of these measures and that will stop the virus would be kidding ourselves”, he said.

The HCSP has also recommended that social distancing guidelines be updated to specify that people should keep two meters away from others in public places, rather than the one meter that is currently officially advised. 

Health minister speaks on masks this morning

The health ministry has yet to respond to the new recommendations for masks that came from the HCSP yesterday, or to issue any updates on other rules for social distancing.

But Health Minister Olivier Véran said on FranceInter this morning: “Artisanal masks that are made at home do not offer all the necessary guarantees.”

He added: “Almost all industrial masks available to the public have a filter capacity of 90%”. This means they are category 1 masks and meet the HCSP guidelines. 


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