Adherence to face mask rules increasing due to Omicron ‘anxiety’

The proportion of people wearing face masks to protect against Covid-19 has reached levels seen towards the end of the previous wave of the virus last spring, amid renewed anxiety over the Omicron variant, researchers have said.

Recent weeks have seen increases in people adhering to guidance around face masks, according to Prof Pete Lunn, head of the behavioural research unit of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

The think tank has monitored the public’s behaviour across a range of measures since the start of the pandemic. Prof Lunn said there had been “a fairly gradual fall” in people following rules around face masks over the summer.

However, the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant had led to changes in behaviour, he said. Face mask wearing rates were now similar to levels seen last spring, as the country was beginning to emerge from the fourth wave of the virus.

Research data showed people were being “more cautious”, with social activity dipping “slightly”, amid “greater levels of anxiety” in recent weeks, he said.

Higher rates of face mask wearing were reported across all areas of life, such as work, in hospitality venues and on public transport. “What we are seeing is the increase in caution is broadly based,” Prof Lunn said.

Prof Sam McConkey, an infectious diseases expert, said there were still cases of people not wearing face masks correctly, such as around their chin or below their nose.

“Omicron is going to spread widely and quickly around Ireland and the world. What many of us would like to do is slow it down by a few weeks,” he said.

If the public stuck to guidance around mask wearing and social distancing “really thoroughly for the next couple of weeks”, the vaccine booster campaign would be given a better chance to soften the coming fifth wave, he said.

Prof Kingston Mills, an expert in immunology, echoed the warning, stating “if people don’t wear masks they’re more likely to transmit Omicron”.

In surveys carried out by Amarach Research for the Department of Health, 98 per cent of people said they wore a face covering every time they were on public transport, with similar rates when in shops.

Some 83 per cent of people said they wore a face covering in public places, with women and younger people more likely to report wearing face masks in public.

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