Last reviewed 8 June 2020

New research has compared simple surgical masks with more sophisticated respirators, as well as looking at wider physical distancing and eye protection, and concluded that more stringent measures could all serve to reduce rates of infection significantly.

The study, which was published in the journal The Lancet, was commissioned and part-funded by the World Health Organization (WHO).

It looked at 172 studies across 16 countries and 6 continents, and 44 relevant comparative studies, and found the following.

  • Transmission of viruses was lower with physical distancing of 1m or more, compared with a distance of less than a metre. Reducing social distancing from 2m to 1m could double the risk of being infected with coronavirus. Protection was increased as distance was lengthened.

  • Face mask use could result in “a large reduction in risk of infection”, with stronger results found with N95 or similar respirators compared to simple disposable surgical masks or similar cotton masks.

  • Eye protection was also associated with less infection.

At present, people in the UK are being advised to keep to a distance of 2m but the Government is under pressure, including from the hospitality and leisure sector, to reduce this.

Professor Holger Schünemann from McMaster University in Canada, who co-led the research, said, “Governments and the public health community can use our results to give clear advice for community settings and healthcare workers on these protective measures to reduce infection risk.”