UK's rapid-fire changes on face coverings advice criticized

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FILE - In this Friday, March 20, 2020 file photo, passengers wearing face masks travel on a Piccadilly Line underground train in London. The World Health Organization on Friday June 5, 2020, broadened its recommendations for the use of masks during the coronavirus pandemic and is now advising that in areas where the virus is spreading, people should wear fabric masks when social distancing is not possible, such as on public transport and in shops. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

LONDON – The British government faced criticism Saturday for another sudden change in its advice on face coverings that has left those running hospitals in England scrambling to work out how they will be able to meet the new requirements.

On Friday, as the World Health Organization broadened its recommendations for the use of masks, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said all hospital staff in England will have to wear surgical face masks from June 15 while visitors and outpatients will need to don some sort of face covering.

His announcement came a day after the government said face coverings, which can be made from any fabric, would be mandatory on public transport in England, from the same date to coincide with the planned reopening of nonessential shops such as department stores and electronic retailers.

The government, which notably did not recommend their use at the height of the pandemic, now says face coverings can provide some limited protection to others and help people avoid unknowingly spreading the virus.

The change in advice echoed developments elsewhere in Europe, where the guidance through the pandemic has often been confused and contradictory.

On Friday, the WHO said it is now advising that in areas where the virus is spreading, people should wear fabric masks when social distancing is not possible, such as on public transport and in shops.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS organizations including hospitals, said the British government appeared to be making last-minute decisions “on the hoof" that seem “overly influenced” by political considerations.

“I think it’s the latest in a long line of announcements that have had a major impact on the way the NHS operates, in which those frontline organisations feel they have been left completely in the dark and they are then expected to make significant and complex operational changes either immediately or with very little notice," he told the BBC.