The World Health Organization (WHO) has changed its advice on face masks, saying they should be worn in public to help stop the spread of coronavirus.
The global body said new information showed they could provide “a barrier for potentially infectious droplets”.
Some countries around the world already recommend or mandate the wearing of face coverings in public.
The WHO had previously argued there was not enough evidence to say that healthy people should wear masks.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead expert on Covid-19, told Reuters news agency the recommendation was for people to wear a “fabric mask – that is, a non-medical mask” in areas where there is a risk of transmission of the disease.
The organisation had always advised that medical face masks should be worn by people who are sick and by those caring for them.
Globally, there have been 6.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 400,000 deaths since the outbreak began late last year, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
What is the WHO’s advice?
The organisation said its new guidance had been prompted by studies over recent weeks. “We are advising governments to encourage that the general public wear a mask,” Dr Van Kerkhove said.
At the same time, the WHO stressed that face masks were just one of a range of tools that could be used to reduce the risk of transmission – and that they should not give people a false sense of protection.
“Masks on their own will not protect you from Covid-19,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro threatened to pull the country out of the WHO unless it ceased to be a “partisan political organisation”. The leader, who had initially dismissed the virus as a “little flu”, has been critical of the lockdown policies recommended by the agency to tackle the spread of the disease.
Last week, US President Donald Trump said he would end ties with the WHO, saying it had failed to hold China – where the outbreak begun – to account over coronavirus.
In the UK, the government announced on Friday that hospital visitors and outpatients would be required to wear face coverings, and that hospital staff would have to wear medical masks, even if they were not in a clinical setting.
The guidance will come into force on 15 June, as more businesses open up and more pupils return to school. Also on Friday the UK became the second country to record more than 40,000 coronavirus-related deaths, after the US.