COVID: Germany debates making N95 masks mandatory | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 13.01.2021
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COVID: Germany debates making N95 masks mandatory

The Bavarian state premier, Markus Söder, says he will introduce legislation making N95 masks mandatory in public settings. Health experts give the plan the thumbs up: but some politicians doubt everybody can afford them

Woman standing on subway platform, wearing an ill-fitting N95 mask

When worn properly, N95 masks protect the wearer and others

Bavarian State Premier, Markus Söder, from the Christian Social Union (CSU), is never stuck for an idea when it comes to tackling the coronavirus pandemic. Just days after he suggested vaccination should be obligatory for health workers, he has announced that from Monday, N95 masks (known as FFP2 masks in Germany and KN95 in China) will be mandatory in stores and on public transport.

The southern German state is on its own with the plan in Germany so far, not least because many states have lower infection rates. But health experts like it. 

"FFP" stands for "filtering facepiece." One main difference from the mouth-nose coverings that have become a common sight throughout the world is that they sit closer to the face and filter both the air that is inhaled and the air that is exhaled.

Markus Söder wearing a face mask in the pattern of the Bavarian flag

Markus Söder is suspected to become the CDU/CSU candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel

Better protection

Virologist Alexander Kekule says: "Of course, an FFP mask offers better protection than normal mouth-nose coverings, which are often worn too loosely. Especially on public transport, where people are often crowded together."

Kekule says an FFP significantly reduces the risk of infection. 

"I am in favor of the idea in principle," says fellow virologist Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit. He added, however, that it is no good to just insist that everybody wear one, saying there had to be free access to the masks and information on how to wear them properly.

The FFP2 or N95 masks are normally used in work situations because of the higher specifications, which, in turn, make for higher costs. In Germany, they cost about €2.50 each. That makes them practically unaffordable for families on low incomes if the state does not step in. 

Officially, FFP2 masks may only be used once. The leader of the Left Party, Katja Kipping, was quick to argue that "making FFP2 masks mandatory without providing them for free would effectively mean that poor people would be totally excluded from public life."

Since December, subsidized FFP2 masks have been available free of charge at pharmacies to senior citizens and other high-risk patients. Media reports say Bavaria plans to distribute some 2 million masks to those who cannot afford them.

 

Watch video 02:18

How to wear a face mask properly

Beard problem

Even if the law is introduced, it might not have the desired effect. The head of hospital hygiene at the university clinic in Hamburg-Eppendorf, Johannes Knobloch, warns against expecting too much. "If they do not fit perfectly, they are no better than normal disposable masks," says Knobloch.

He also points to a further complication: "FFP masks are of use for clean-shaven men only." Even some stubble, he says, can render a mask ineffective because air can get in and out unfiltered. 

FFP2 in the Bundestag

Söder says it is not just about protecting the wearer, but also those around them. And, he says, there is no shortage of the masks like there was at the beginning of the crisis. However, German Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) made no mention of them in his policy speech to the Bundestag on Wednesday.

Söder got support of sorts from the leader of the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), Christian Lindner. He recommended giving the idea due consideration and perhaps abolishing other restrictions instead. Judging by the number of FFP2 masks being worn in the Bundestag, Söder already has a political majority behind him. 

This article was translated from German.

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