The world is now bracing for a potential surge of coronavirus cases linked to the new variants. In other to avoid more deaths, European countries have reimposed strict lockdown measures, and some have made “medical” grade masks mandatory in some areas.
Starting this week in Germany, N95 or surgical-grade masks are compulsory for people on public transportation, in office spaces and in shops. Such masks are also set to become mandatory in public transport and in shops in Austria next week, and France could soon follow. The French authorities are considering whether they should implement a recommendation from the country’s health advisory council that people drop homemade masks, and wear surgical or highly protective fabric masks instead.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said concerns about the new variants had driven the decision on masks.
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“We have to slow the spread of this variant. That means we cannot wait until the danger is palpable,” the chancellor told reporters on Thursday, in explaining the decision to further tighten restrictions. “There is still some time to ward off the danger posed by this virus. All of the measures that we have agreed to are preventive.”
Effectively, the German authorities are trying to buy time by slowing the spread of the new variant long enough for the weather to warm and for the number of people vaccinated to increase, Ms. Merkel said. Her government has been criticized for weeks for failing to acquire enough doses of the vaccine to inoculate everyone who wants one.
The chancellor pushed back against the charge on Thursday, saying that everyone in Germany would have the opportunity to be vaccinated “by the end of the summer,” or Sept. 21. “But I cannot guarantee how many people will get themselves vaccinated,” she added.
The more contagious variant discovered in Britain has been found in 60 countries, according to the World Health Organization, but how it spreads, and whether it has already contributed to countries’ surges, remains unclear. Other variants have been detected in South Africa and in Brazil, and while none is known to be more deadly or to cause more severe disease, the authorities in some European countries have scrambled to impose measures like new mask rules or tightened lockdowns to limit their spread.
In Germany, people now have to wear N95, FFP2 or FFP3 masks, or generic surgical ones — the disposable masks that are usually blue — in some public spaces. Cloth masks and other face coverings such, like face shields, are not considered sufficient and are no longer accepted in highly trafficked areas, including stores and public transportation.
The new rules imposed in Germany are tougher than guidelines from the World Health Organization, which recommends medical masks only for health care workers, people with Covid-19 symptoms and those over 60 years old or who have underlying conditions. Wearing what it calls a nonmedical mask both indoors and outdoors is enough for the general public, according to the organization.
There is widespread evidence that masks limit the risk of infection, but not all masks provide the same level of protection. A study that compared transmission rates in 16 countries and was published in The Lancet in June found that while face masks contributed to a large reduction in risk of infection, the risks were even lower when people wore a N95 mask or a similar model compared with disposable surgical masks.
N95 masks are more expensive, raising concerns that the new rules will be discriminatory for low-income families. The Austrian government has promised free masks for people on low incomes and those over 65.
Neither Germany nor Britain, which in recent weeks has faced a resurgence of cases and its highest numbers of daily deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, require people to wear masks outdoors.