There is no doubt the humble face mask divided Australians.
A firm staple during the Covid-19 pandemic, they were mandated by governments in certain settings.
Some felt they were lifesavers, others viewed them as oppressive or a waste of time.
But more than three years into the pandemic there still isn’t a universal consensus on whether masks protect against the coronavirus with both sides utilising different methodology to argue their case.
But a recent Cochrane Review — considered the gold standard of evidence-based medicine — is perhaps the closest medical conclusion on the validity of masks.
The review assessed 78 high-quality scientific studies. And its findings are illuminating.
The authors found “wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference,” when comparing masking with non-masking to prevent Covid-19.
What’s more, even for health care workers providing routine care, “there were no clear differences” between medical or surgical masks versus N95s, the review found.
Of course, not everyone is accepting the Cochrane findings.
Critics argue that a different conclusion might have been reached if more and better studies had been available.
The paper’s authors acknowledge that the trials they considered were prone to bias and didn’t take into account inconsistent use of masks.
But lead author Tom Jefferson, senior associate tutor at the University of Oxford, has stood by the study.
In a recent interview, he offered this: “There is still no evidence that masks are effective during a pandemic.”
Over Christmas last year millions of Australian were warned to wear face masks in certain settings to quash a fresh spike in Covid cases.
The issue was raised by NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant, who gave the advice despite assuring that the state had already reached its latest virus peak.
“Wearing masks is an effective measure, but it is a personal choice, but I think about those around you,” she explained.
Other states followed with Queensland chief health officer John Gerrard urging people to socially distance and wear mask
The Australia Medical Association unsuccessfully pushed for state governments to return to mask mandates over the busy holiday season.
In Victoria, where Premier Daniel Andrews and his chief health officer Brett Sutton oversaw some of the harshest pandemic rules in the world, masks became a divisive issue.
Police were forced to enforce mask rules, which often let to confrontations with members of the public.
In August last year, the Andrews government made available millions of N95 masks.
“Providing masks free of charge to those who need them most will help them protect themselves, their loved ones, and Victoria’s hardworking healthcare workers,” the Premier said.