Face mask demand appears to grow in UK amid coronavirus outbreak

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The demand for face masks in the UK appears to be on the rise amid fears about the coronavirus, with pharmacies working to boost stocks.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) - which said the "whole world needs to be on alert" over the outbreak - is expected to reconvene its emergency committee on Thursday to decide whether to declare an international public health emergency.

But experts warn that there is "very little evidence" of the benefits of wearing face masks outside a clinical setting, and say that people concerned about the transmission of infectious diseases "would do better to prioritise good personal, respiratory and hand hygiene".

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The World Health Organisation said the "whole world needs to be on alert"The World Health Organisation said the "whole world needs to be on alert"
The World Health Organisation said the "whole world needs to be on alert"

Another product on the Boots website, a box of 50 masks, is also sold out and carries the same message about not being restocked.

Boots said surgical face masks are available to order in stores as a special line from the pharmacy counter, adding that they are "working to make additional stock available for customers to purchase in store and on boots.com which we hope will land over the next week".

A Boots spokeswoman said: "The best way to help prevent catching a virus is by making sure you regularly wash your hands with soap, and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth to prevent transmission from surfaces, especially after blowing your nose, sneezing and coughing.

"Antiviral hand foams and gel can also be useful when you are out and about.

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"Surgical face masks are normally available on request from Boots stores and customers can order from our pharmacy counters, depending on stock availability.

"All our pharmacists have the latest public health advice on coronavirus and can offer advice on the best way to stay healthy this winter."

A branch of B&Q in London appeared to be low on stocks of face masks, with racks empty on Wednesday evening.

B&Q has been contacted for comment.

Meanwhile, on amazon.co.uk, a pack of 12 "anti virus" flu surgical face masks is sold out, with the online retailer saying they do not know when, or if, the item will be back in stock, although there are other masks available on the site.

An Amazon spokesman declined to comment.

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Dr Jake Dunning, head of emerging infections and zoonoses, Public Health England, said: "Face masks play a very important role in clinical settings, such as hospitals.

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

"Facemasks must be worn correctly, changed frequently, removed properly, disposed of safely and used in combination with good universal hygiene behaviour in order for them to be effective.

"Research also shows that compliance with these recommended behaviours reduces over time when wearing facemasks for prolonged periods.

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"People concerned about the transmission of infectious diseases would do better to prioritise good personal, respiratory and hand hygiene."

The coronavirus death toll, which has risen to 170, is currently lower than the 348 people who died in China from Sars.

Wuhan in China is the city at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak.

The WHO's advice for the public on coronavirus includes hand and respiratory hygiene, and safe food practices.

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On face masks, a poster on the WHO website, under the heading Stay Healthy While Travelling, says: "If you choose to wear a face mask, be sure to cover mouth and nose - avoid touching mask once it's on.

"Immediately discard single-use mask after each use and wash hands after removing masks."