Face coverings are set to become mandatory for airline passengers – even though medical opinion is sceptical of the potential benefits.
Airlines and airports are demanding that internationally agreed measures are in place when aviation starts to recover from the near-standstill caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The industry fears that many prospective passengers will be deterred from travelling if they believe flying places them at risk of contracting the virus from fellow travellers. The hope is that the universal use of face coverings will restore confidence.
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At present, passenger numbers at airports and on most flights are so low that maintaining separation is generally achievable – though not at the security search area, passport control and departure gates.
When numbers increase, imposing a two-metre social distancing rule would be virtually impossible in an airport or airline without destroying the economics of aviation.
Heathrow airport is calling for a “common international standard for safe air travel”.
The UK government, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and the International Civil Aviation Organisation have yet to decide on precautions for flying while Covid-19 remains a threat.
Public Health England is unconvinced about the public use of face coverings, saying: “Face masks play a very important role in clinical settings, such as hospitals, but there’s very little evidence of widespread benefit from their use outside of these clinical settings.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) goes one step further and cautions: “The wide use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not supported by current evidence and carries uncertainties and critical risk.”
WHO warns that wearing a mask can create a “false sense of security, leading to potentially less adherence to other preventive measures such as physical distancing and hand hygiene”.
Nevertheless, increasingly impatient airlines and airports are set to impose their own rules on hygiene.
Manchester Airports Group (MAG), which owns Manchester, East Midlands and Stansted, will this week set out what it calls “various new safety measures” to contend with coronavirus.
The Independent understands the pilot programme will include a requirement for passengers to wear non-medical face-coverings while passing through the airport.
A spokesperson for MAG said of the measures: “They are designed to help the small number of passengers currently making essential journeys through our airports feel safer and more confident about flying at this time.
“We will be providing confirmation of exact guidance for passengers, to allow them to fully prepare for their journey, before the measures are put in place.”
An increasing number of airlines have made wearing a face covering compulsory. Canada insists all passengers must carry a suitable covering, though it is not compulsory to wear it during the entire journey.
Some airlines are also leaving middle seats free to keep passengers further apart. But Ryanair – Europe’s biggest budget airline – has criticised the concept.
“This empty middle seat measure is wholly ineffective and does not comply with two-metre social distancing rules,” a spokesperson said. “We need effective health measures that work, such as wearing face masks and/or monitoring body temperature.”
But the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control describes temperature checks at airports as “not very effective in preventing the spread of the virus, especially when people do not have symptoms”.
The organisation says: “It is generally considered more useful to provide those arriving at airports with clear information explaining what to do if they develop symptoms after arrival.”
Separately, passengers on Eurostar will be required to wear face coverings from the start of service on Monday, 4 May.
The international train operator, which currently operates one train per day from London St Pancras to Brussels and Paris, said: “Passengers must wear a face mask or face covering at our stations and on board in line with guidelines announced by the French and Belgian governments.
“Any type of mask is suitable as long as it effectively covers your nose and mouth.
“If you don’t have a mask you may be refused travel on our services. We’d like to advise you that fines may be imposed in France and Belgium if you’re not wearing a mask.”
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