Surgical masks may not be sufficient to protect healthcare workers, admits SAGE

The vast majority of nursing staff caring for COVID-19 patients currently wear nothing more than a surgical mask and thin plastic apron. 

Matt Bodell
26 April 2021
Protective medical face mask and latex gloves. Personal protective equipment shortage concept. Coronavirus, covid 19 prevention

Healthcare unions have been calling for a higher grade of PPE since last year.

Thin surgical face masks may not be sufficient to protect health care workers against Covid-19, according to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).


A document published by SAGE last week suggests that a higher standard of mask may be needed to help protect healthcare workers dealing with either confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 outside of critical care areas.

The document explains that while “conventionally classed as either airborne or droplet in a clinical context,” current evidence suggests SARS-CoV-2 falls between these two categories with transmission “possible through inhalation and mucous membrane exposure to a range of particle sizes, as well as potentially through fomites.”

Current Government guidance high grade personal protective equipment (PPE), such as FFP3 masks and long-armed gowns, are only used by staff in critical care areas or undertaking procedures deemed aerosol generating.

The vast majority of nursing staff caring for COVID-19 patients currently wear nothing more than a surgical face mask and a thin plastic apron.


It is thought that over 1,000 health and social care workers have died of COVID-19 since March 2020. 

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), alongside other healthcare unions, have been calling for improved PPE for frontline health and care staff since last year.

RCN professional lead for infection prevention and control Rose Gallagher said: “The assessment by SAGE is a step in the right direction but we need the UK infection prevention and control guidance to reflect this change, so that health and care organisations feel confident they can apply it in line with local circumstances and risks.

“We have heard many reports from our members that their employers do not feel able to deviate from the letter of national guidance for fear of being criticised.


“Changing the guidance would empower employers to find local solutions that offer a greater level of protection to nurses, midwives and patients.”

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