Coronavirus: face coverings do not encourage risky behaviour, study says

More than 160 countries either urge or require people to wear a mask in public to help curb the spread of infections

A person wears a scarf as a protective face mask in Melbourne after it became the first city in Australia to enforce mask-wearing in public as part of efforts to curb a resurgence of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), July 23, 2020. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders

Face coverings do not give wearers a false sense of security that allows them to take part in risky coronavirus-catching behaviour, research suggests.

Researchers, led by Theresa Marteau from the University of Cambridge, say the concept of risk compensation, which suggests people can become apathetic to other public health measures if they wear a mask, is no longer relevant.

Face coverings are now recommended or mandated in more than 160 countries as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report, published in medical journal The BMJ, looked at studies to find wearing a mask does not reduce the frequency of handwashing or hand sanitising, and that people tend to move away from those wearing a mask.

The study found that the concept of risk compensation, rather than the behaviour, seemed to be a greater threat to public health through delaying potentially effective interventions.

At least 22 systematic reviews assessed the effect of wearing a mask on the transmission of respiratory virus infections, researchers said.

These included six experimental studies conducted in community settings that also measured hand hygiene.

The University of Cambridge analysis builds on work in 2016 that called risk compensation theory “a dead horse that no longer needs to be beaten".

“We would add that this dead horse now needs burying to try to prevent the continued threat it poses through slowing the adoption of effective public health interventions,” researchers said.

They said the idea of risk compensation could be used to stop effective interventions about which people hold strong views by arguing that such a measure might be worse than no measure.

“There is, however, no compelling evidence that such risk compensation exists at a population level,” they said.