As fears rise over the potential spread of coronavirus an increasing number of people are wearing facemasks in public. But are they effective?

Here are some questions answered on what people can do to protect themselves and limit the spread of infection.

What is the best way for people to protect themselves against infections like coronavirus?

Health officials say the best protection is to regularly wash their hands with soap and water.

If soap and water are not available, hand sanitiser gel can be used until people can get to a sink.

People are encouraged to wash their hands for 20 seconds, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson instructing the public to wash their hands for the length of time it takes to sing happy birthday twice.

The recommended NHS hand-washing technique with soap and water. Credit: NHS

What about the use of facemasks? Do they work?

Public Health England has said that for the general public, facemasks are not considered to be effective to protect them from becoming infected.

But when worn by those who may already be infected with the virus, masks can help reduce the spread.

PHE added specialist masks are included in protective equipment for appropriately-trained health professionals dealing with high-risk individuals or cases.

“Face masks play a very important role in clinical settings, such as hospitals,” said Dr Jake Dunning, PHE’s head of emerging infections and zoonoses.

“However, there is very little evidence of widespread benefit from their use outside of these clinical settings.”

In April, a team from the University of East Anglia (UEA) carried out a rapid review of existing scientific evidence and concluded there was no push to change current UK policy, which does not recommend the widespread use of face masks.

The new study, which has not been peer-reviewed, found that widespread use of face masks was not needed.

But experts did find that if both an ill person and those who are well – and who live in the same household – wear masks, the risk of transmission is cut by 19%.

There was also enough evidence to support vulnerable people deciding to use masks for short periods, such as when they are on public transport, visiting shops or using the GP surgery.

Study author Professor Paul Hunter, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, and an expert in infectious diseases, said: “There has been a lot of debate about whether wearing a face mask could help protect people from Covid-19 and reduce the spread of the disease.

“We wanted to evaluate all the available evidence to see what the best advice for people is.

“We studied when respiratory symptoms appeared that were similar to Covid-19 – fever and cough or sore throat.

“But it’s important to remember that we have not been able to look specifically at Covid-19 because there have been no specific studies to date.”

Public Health England has said that facemasks are not considered to be effective to protect people from becoming infected. Credit: PA

Is there any advice for people who choose to wear facemasks?

The public are not being advised to use facemasks. Some people in isolation will have been given facemasks and will have been instructed by their health professional how and when to use them.

This guidance will likely include information on how they are worn correctly, should be changed frequently, removed properly and disposed of safely.

One expert, William Keevil, professor of environmental healthcare at the University of Southampton, previously urged people “not to over rely on using standard masks”.

He added: “They are usually loose fitting, use poor filtration fabrics and give little protection to the wearer other than to restrict touching the nose and mouth without protecting the eyes”.

But Prof Keevil added: “If you must, then use a close fitting N95-rated (FFP2) mask which offers good, although not complete, protection against infectious aerosols e.g. from coughs.”

Testing for coronavirus is underway in the UK. Credit: PA

Is there any advice other than washing hands?

Aside from regular hand washing people can ensure their work surfaces and door handles are clean and they can try to avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

The “catch it, bin it, kill it” slogan is also being employed to encourage people to try and prevent infection spread though coughing and sneezing.