The UN agency updates its guidance based on evidence from studies conducted in recent weeks
The World Health Organization (WHO) updated its guidance on Friday to recommend that governments ask everyone to wear fabric face masks in public areas where there is a risk of transmission of Covid-19 to help reduce the spread of the pandemic disease.
In its new guidance, prompted by evidence from studies conducted in recent weeks, the WHO stressed that face masks were only one of a range of tools that can reduce the risk of viral transmission, and should not give a false sense of protection.
"Masks on their own will not protect you from Covid-19," WHO's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters at a briefing.
The WHO's technical lead expert on COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, said in a Reuters interview: "We are advising governments to encourage that the general public wear a mask. And we specify a fabric mask - that is, a non-medical mask.
"We have new research findings," she added. "We have evidence now that if this is done properly it can provide a barrier ... for potentially infectious droplets."
While some countries and US states have recommended or mandated the wearing of face coverings in public, the WHO had previously said there was not enough evidence for or against the use of masks for healthy people in the wider community.
It had always recommended that medical masks be worn by people who are sick and by those caring for them.
Britain has said masks will be compulsory for passengers on buses, trains, aircraft and ferries in England from June 15.
The UN agency's advice that all healthcare workers dealing with Covid-19 patients, or with suspected cases of the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, should wear medical masks remains the same, Van Kerkhove said.
But the advice has been broadened to recommend staff coming into contact with any patients or residents in clinics, hospitals, care homes and long-term residential facilities should also wear masks at all times, she said.
'It's not over'
Meanwhile, WHO said on Friday, some countries have seen "upticks" in Covid-19 cases as lockdowns ease, and populations must protect themselves from the coronavirus while authorities continue testing.
The epicentre of the pandemic is currently in countries of Central, South and North America, particularly the United States, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said.
"On upticks (in cases), yes we have seen in countries around the world - I'm not talking specifically about Europe - when the lockdowns ease, when the social distancing measures ease, people sometimes interpret this as 'OK, it's over'," Harris told a UN briefing in Geneva.
"It's not over. It's not over until there is no virus anywhere in the world," she said.
Harris, referring to US demonstrations since the killing of George Floyd 10 days ago, she said that protesters must take precautions.
"We have certainly seen a lot of passion this week, we've seen people who have felt the need to be out and to express their feelings," she added. ""We ask them to remember still protect yourself and others."
To avoid infection, the WHO advised people to maintain a distance of at least one metre (three feet), frequently wash hands and avoid touching their mouth, nose and eyes, Harris said.