All hospital staff in England will be expected to wear surgical masks from the 15 June, while all visitors and outpatients will be expected to wear face coverings at all times.
Health leaders responded by asking why such measures had not been implemented earlier in the pandemic and questioned whether they would apply in future to other settings as well as hospitals.
The move, announced today by the Department of Health and Social Care, also follows the widespread shortages of personal protective equipment during the peak of the Covid-19 crisis.
“All hospital staff will be required to wear type 1 or 2 surgical masks, and this will cover all staff working in hospital”
But the government said today that it was “confident in stocks of face masks to meet demand and continues to pursue contracts for additional stock”.
Further guidance for hospitals will be published next week to allow hospitals to get stocks and plans in place, and the guidance will be kept under review, said the department.
It noted, however, that while members of the public were “strongly urged” to attend hospital wearing a face covering, no one would be denied care.
Earlier this week, the government also told the public that they must wear face coverings in order to use public transport from 15 June.
It follows evidence from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) that face coverings could help reduce transmission risk among those suffering from coronavirus but not showing symptoms.
These face coverings should cover the mouth and nose while allowing the wearer to breathe comfortably and can be as simple as a scarf or bandanna that ties behind the head to give a snug fit.
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: “As the NHS reopens right across the country, it is critically important to stop the spread amongst staff, patients and visitors too.
“So, today we are setting out that all hospital visitors and outpatients will need to wear face coverings.
“One of the things that we’ve learnt is that those in hospital, those who are working in hospital, are more likely to catch coronavirus, whether they work in a clinical setting or not.
He added: “And to offer even greater protection, we are also providing new guidance for NHS staff in England which will come into force again on the 15th of June.
“All hospital staff will be required to wear type 1 or 2 surgical masks, and this will cover all staff working in hospital,” he said.
“It will apply at all times, not just when they are doing their life-saving work on the frontline. It will apply in all areas except those areas designated as Covid-secure workplaces.”
On 27 May, ministers announced that they had signed deals with more than 100 new suppliers from around the world for personal protective equipment as well as increasing domestic production.
However, the announcement came several months after the issue of PPE shortages was first flagged by healthcare professionals and the organisations representing them.
Surveys of nurses and other staff during the peak weeks of the pandemic regularly reported that PPE shortages were both a problem and a major source of concern for those on the front line.
“While these new measures are welcome, questions will be asked about why they were not introduced sooner”
It sparked guidance on reusing PPE in unavoidable situations and union advice to members on refusing to treat patients as a last resort if they lacked adequate safety equipment.
Ministers were also repeatedly challenged on PPE supply and demand during the daily Downing Street briefings, with stories emerging of staff making their own masks and aprons.
Responding to new guidance, Dr Layla McCay, a director at the NHS Confederation, said: “We don’t know the true impact that coronavirus has had on the NHS workforce and so, while these new measures are welcome, questions will be asked about why they were not introduced sooner.
“This virus is not just infectious in hospitals. It is encouraging that the government is considering how a requirement to wear face coverings can be extended to social care, where the disease has taken its hold most severely.
“Workers across other settings, including general practice, pharmacies and community services, should expect to receive the same level of protection,” she said.