Face masks: Who is right? The U.K. or South Korea?

From Andrew Allison, Head of Campaigns 

The number of deaths from COVID-19 in South Korea, at the time of writing, is 246. Compare that with over 21,000 deaths in U.K. hospitals alone. And although it is thought that we have reached the peak of the current outbreak, there are still over 500 people a day dying in our hospitals, with additional deaths in care homes. So how did South Korea do it? This article in The Guardian gives us an explanation:

“By the time the World Health Organization issued its plea in mid-March for countries to “test, test, test”, South Korea had spent weeks doing just that, quickly developing the capability to test an average of 12,000 people – and sometimes as many as 20,000 – a day at hundreds of drive-through and walk-in testing centres. The mobile centres conducted the tests free of charge within 10 minutes, with the results were [sic] sent to people’s phones within 24 hours. By mid-March more than 270,000 people had been tested.”

South Korea achieved this remarkably low mortality rate without the lockdowns we have seen in Europe. Its government also managed to procure and distribute face masks in a remarkably efficient manner. This article in The New York Times explains how it was done. 

It is clear that the use of face masks is an important weapon in South Korea’s arsenal. As this graph highlights, 19 per cent of South Koreans wore face masks before the COVID-19 outbreak, but after the outbreak this figure rose to 70 per cent. 

In many countries in the Far East, as soon as someone develops a cold, a mask is worn to protect others from catching it. It is a courtesy that many of us in the U.K. could extend to others. In this article in Time magazine, David Hui, a respiratory medicine expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studied the 2002 to 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) extensively, explains why face masks should be worn:

“If you are standing in front of someone who is sick, the mask will give some protection. The mask provides a barrier from respiratory droplets, which is predominantly how the virus spreads.”

Later in the Time article, Joseph Tsang, an infectious disease specialist, had this to say:

“Wearing a mask is not just for protecting yourself from getting infected, but also minimizing the chance of potential infection harboring in your body from spreading to people around you…. Whenever you foresee to have someone within two to three meters (6.5 to 10 feet) apart, then it’s better to wear a mask.”

The Scottish Government has issued advice encouraging the use of masks and face coverings in general, but the message from Whitehall remains that we shouldn’t wear face masks because there is "weak evidence" that masks worn by the general public would prevent infections spreading from person to person.

Call me a cynic, but I suspect that  the real reason why the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) continues to issue this advice is because the NHS has a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). I am not a medical or scientific expert - all I can do is look at the available evidence and draw conclusions. This is something that most people in the U.K. will be doing, if they haven’t done so already. 

Countries like South Korea took decisive action to halt the spread of COVID-19. Its government had been testing for weeks before the World Health Organisation urged governments to “test, test, test.” It procured face masks with remarkable efficiency, and made sure that healthcare workers got them first before distributing them to pharmacies. South Korea has been practising social distancing, but has not been forced to lockdown its economy in the same way as we have done. The number of cases of COVID-19 is low, as is the death rate.

Compare that to what has happened in the U.K. We didn’t test, trace, and contain. We are still being told that we shouldn’t wear face masks. We were slow in implementing a lockdown, and it looks that we are going to be the worst affected country in Europe. 

I do not blame the Prime Minister. When the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser present their recommendations, any Prime Minister would have to go along with their advice. But I do think that the U.K. has been consistently behind the curve because of the advice the government has been given. 

So when I am told by SAGE that I shouldn’t fear a face mask, I am naturally sceptical. I would rather take advice from experts in countries which have successfully managed COVID-19.


All views expressed in contributions by named authors are their own and may not reflect the views of The Freedom Association.

Showing 4 reactions

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  • Bill Walker
    commented 2020-05-19 21:12:49 +0100
    Again, another case of mixed advice, leaving people confused,some say it is more dangerous wearing them as you sweat and touch your face.and then you don’t inhale the virus, you get it through contact on the skin. I can see the point about wearing them to stop the spread by sneezing etc., and people don’t know straight away they have the virus, so maybe we should wear them as a precaution. So as you can probably tell, I am unsure. I have no concerns either way.
  • Roger Welsh
    commented 2020-05-19 19:05:57 +0100
    Lord Sumption had it right.
    Once ferguson was proved wide of the mark and the imposition of lockdown economic destruction,
    We have weak politicians who are frightened of having caused deaths from the fly virus.
    They have caused deaths through patients requiring treatment but have been denied.

    Lord Sumption described the actions as “wicked”.

    Fear fear fear……… that’s all the ignorant can engender!
  • Adrian White
    commented 2020-05-19 06:55:36 +0100
    A mask is something that covers the face. How does a ‘face mask’ differ from a mask? It is different kinds of masks that need to be distinguished, not different parts of the body.
    I met a woman yesterday, much altered by fear from when I last saw her before the curfew. She now wears a dust mask and believes that it protects her from death from the coronavirus.
    If the Freedom Association has a new mission of campaigning for freedom from death, why not add freedom from insanity and ignorance?
  • Bill Walker
    commented 2020-04-29 16:06:06 +0100
    As you say no blame on Boris, but someone should be named and blamed.