face mask

Claim face masks are not effective against Covid-19 is False

Ferret Fact Service | Scotlands impartial fact check project

Mask wearing has been mandatory in certain indoor settings since July across the UK, as the Scottish and UK governments attempt to reduce the transmission of Covid-19.

There has been some resistance to the mandatory mask rules, with some questioning the effectiveness of wearing face coverings. One such critic is the columnist James Delingpole, who claimed the masks were “proven to be ineffective” as he complained about being asked to wear one on a train.

Claim face masks are not effective against Covid-19 is False 5

Ferret Fact Service looked at this claim and found it False.


The Scottish and UK governments made it mandatory to wear a face covering on public transport in July 2020. They are required at indoor transport hubs, shops, hospitality premises such as bars and restaurants, shopping centres and other indoor areas such as banks, building societies and post offices. The rules also include cinemas, museums, and places of worship.

There are different types of masks, which offer different levels of protection. Both the UK and Scottish Government legislation for the general public refers to ‘face coverings’. The UK government defines a face covering as “something which safely covers the nose and mouth”. They can be bought in reusable or single use format. The UK Government website advises that one “may also use a scarf, bandana, religious garment or hand-made cloth covering but these must securely fit round the side of the face”. 

Use of the term ‘face covering’ is to distinguish the masks the public must wear in certain indoor settings from the surgical or medical grade masks that are used in health and social care. These are intended to be reserved for medical professionals.

James Delingpole claims that the ‘face covering’ masks have “proven to be ineffective” against Covid-19. This is not accurate. 

Current evidence suggests that the main way Covid-19 is spread is through respiratory (or smaller aerosol) droplets, when a person is in close contact with another. For example, coughing or sneezing resulting in droplets getting into another person’s mouth, nose or eyes. It can also be transmitted via surfaces around the affected person, although some evidence suggests this is of lower risk. 

Face coverings are meant to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transferring from person-to-person through these respiratory droplets. They work as a simple barrier to help prevent droplets from “traveling into the air and onto other people when the person wearing the mask coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice”.

Alongside other measures such as social distancing and hand washing, this is meant to reduce transmission of the virus. 

But do masks work?

In the early stages of the pandemic, there was much debate over the effectiveness of face coverings as a means to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

There was limited evidence to support their use, as the virus was newly discovered and relatively little research had been done on its transmission in the community. 

Many health bodies around the world did not initially recommend the general public wear such masks, instead focussing on social distancing measures.

There is now significant evidence to suggest that face coverings, properly covering the mouth and nose, are effective at reducing the spread of coronavirus. 

One study published on 26 October in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found that countries who were ‘early adopters’ of mask wearing during the pandemic “experienced low coronavirus-related mortality”. 

A 1 June review of observational studies published by The Lancet, estimated that surgical and comparable cloth masks are 67 per cent effective in protecting the wearer. An Oxford University study published 26 June also found that cloth face masks and coverings are effective for both source protection and wearer protection, meaning they are effective at both stopping the wearer from passing on the virus or receiving it. 

This was also supported by a Cambridge University modelling study published on 10 June. A German study estimated that face masks reduced the daily growth rate of reported infections by around 40 per cent.

One problem for researchers studying the impact of mask-wearing is that it is hard to control many variables in human populations. However, in animal studies, positive impacts of mask barriers have been observed.

A 6 October article in the journal, Nature, said: “The science supports using masks, with recent studies suggesting that they could save lives in different ways”. 

“Research shows that they cut down the chances of both transmitting and catching the coronavirus, and some studies hint that masks might reduce the severity of infection if people do contract the disease.”

Ferret Fact Service verdict: False

James Delingpole’s claim that masks have been ‘proven to be ineffective’ against the coronavirus is not accurate. Evidence has taken a while to emerge as the virus was first developing, but there is now significant data and many peer-reviewed studies which have found that wearing a face covering over your mouth and nose does have an impact on the transmission of Covid-19.

This claim is false

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, and signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles.

All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here.

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