New WHO Guidance on masks for COVID-19 – ignores findings of its own evidence review calling for more protective measure

WHO has issued new interim guidance on the masks required for health care workers at risk from Covid-19, Advice on the use of masks in the context of COVID-19. It reasserts WHO’s unquestionably dangerous advice that most health care workers need only use surgical/medical masks (rather than respirators) that offer relatively little protection. A consequence is that some health care workers will continue to be exposed, infected and will die in circumstances that could have been avoided. The WHO advice will inevitably mean other at-risk work groups, including those is home care settings or required to undertake essential work in settings where physical distancing isn’t always possible, will likewise be placed at risk.

When WHO released the 5 June ‘interim guidance’, it was in possession of a WHO-commissioned Lancet review published on 1 June that calls for high protection respirators (eg N95/FFP3) as a ‘minimum’ for health care workers, together with other PPE including eye protection and gowns. Several WHO officers had reviewed and commented on the Lancet review prior to publication. WHO though chose to discount evidence it had commissioned a part-funded.

WHO’s decision certainly isn’t science based and certainly isn’t health based. It suggests the agency has been captured by the private health care industry and the employers’ lobby, who either don’t want to pick up the bill or don’t want to admit there might be legal liability for coronavirus-related occupational disease.

The Lancet paper concludes a physical distancing requirement of 2m is twice as protective as WHO’s at least 1m recommendation, far less protective than that considered necessary by many public and workplace health agencies. ITUC and the Council of Global Unions have called on WHO to improve its guidance. PSI has presented consistently to WHO robust arguments for better protective equipment and greater physical distancing. WHO has now ignored both the findings of its own commissioned and part-financed review, published 1 June, and the repeated calls from unions and many leading academics and public health bodies.

WHO’s behaviour is shameful, dangerous and antithetical to its goal of promoting health and well-being.

Rory O’Neill, Editor, Hazards Magazine

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