The not so transparent story of see-through masks

FACE MASKS worn as a protection from the SARS-CoV-2 virus make life harder for the 11 million people in the UK who have some level of deafness. Further, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) has pointed out that it is not only the deaf who struggle: those people with aphasia, autism, dementia or learning disabilities will also experience communication challenges, bringing the total number affected to 14 million. And even those with good hearing and no communication difficulties make use of facial expressions and lip reading and are at a disadvantage from others wearing masks.

Given the near total lack of robust scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of masks in reducing viral transmission going back decades, together with the wide range of harms associated with widespread masking, it’s a travesty that masking was introduced at all. But, for reasons we can only currently speculate about, many of those in positions of authority have sought to impose their use; at great cost to the physical and mental health of those forced to wear them, as well to taxpayers who have been obliged to fund their procurement by governments and health systems.

Now, research by Smile Free suggests the Scottish government spent around £5m of taxpayer money on transparent masks that were not only ineffective but not recommended for use in most situations. 

Announced by the Scottish Government in December 2021 as a means of ‘helping people with communication needs’, an order of 2.3m transparent face masks by NHS Scotland was trumpeted by Scottish Government Health Secretary, Humza Yousaf, as a way to address ‘difficulties for people who rely on lip reading’ caused by the use of face masks – mandated by himself, of course – in care settings. Yousaf was clearly excited by what he described as an ‘innovative’ solution to the ‘usual surgical face masks’, commenting that, ‘these masks mean staff and patients can communicate clearly while staying safe’, whilst NHS Scotland CEO Mary Morgan breathlessly celebrated the efforts of her procurement teams who had been ‘working hard to distribute transparent masks to health boards across Scotland in time for December’.

There had already been a failed attempt made to introduce see-through face masks to the health services, back in September 2020, in NHS England. Then, The Sun had reported that over 250,000 clear masks had been sent to front-line staff who relied on lip-reading or facial expressions to communicate; the coverings, according to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), having been manufactured to ‘strict safety standards’. 

No one would use them, however, with staff claiming that testing had not been done and with the RCSLT stating that they were “really worried” and unwilling to place their members at risk by sanctioning the masks’ use. In fact, the DHSC did reveal in an internal memo that masks had not been tested for ‘bacterial filtration’, prompting the thought that this seems akin to an aeroplane not being tested for its ability to get off the ground. All in all, NHS England’s exercise in bureaucratic bungling cost the taxpayer £550,000 (although the DHSC, describing this miserable failure as a ‘pilot’, did claim that the lessons learned from the boondoggle would ‘inform future procurement’).

With this background in mind, we can turn to the Scottish initiative, where we are able to put the transparent masks into the broader context of PPE in general. Not the only supplier engaged (now-defunct Edinburgh social enterprise, Breathe Easy, supplied a test order of 10,000 clear masks), the Dumfriesshire-based PPE Alpha Solway, having been acquired in 2015, is in fact part of a larger organisation, the Globus Group. 

It is run by Haraldur Agustsson, an Icelander who lives in England and who owns between 25% and 50% of the Group’s issued shares. 

Alpha Solway’s partnership with the Scottish Government began in 2020 when, albeit with no previous experience in making masks for healthcare use, it received an order worth £53 million for 232 million surgical masks and 2 million visors to meet demand for Scotland’s health and social care sectors until summer 2021; a move that was acknowledged with delight and applause by various SNP MSPs keen to bask in the sheen of others’ reflected glory. Ironically, Agustsson has been a regular Conservative Party donor.

PPE contracts such as these were of enormous value to the companies awarded them. Globus itself saw spectacular growth in 2020 and 2021, such that the company’s valuation has been put at more than £1 billion; and its Alpha Solway subsidiary experienced an explosive revenue rise for the 12 months ending in May 2021 of over 420%, with pre-tax profits soaring by nearly 540%, an increase from 2019 of over £23.5 million! A nice little earner, little wonder then that Agustsson wrote in Alpha Solway’s May 2021 financial statement that, ‘amid the national emergency’, it had been Alpha Solway’s ‘proud duty to step up’ and that it had been a ‘privilege’ to continue to work for ‘the greater good’.

But how has the Scottish experiment with transparent masks progressed? After the initial drumroll of self-laudatory backslapping from Yousaf and Morgan, things have been quiet concerning the estimated £5,000,000 expenditure from the public purse. Alpha Solway seems strangely silent, its website failing to advertise the mask amongst its suite of products, with the only mention being the original December ’21 press release, buried multiple levels down in the site hierarchy. 

NHS Scotland does mention the existence of the masks but offer no further assessment of their impact and benefits to patients and staff. And the RCSLT website, in an update posted on 10th June 2022, states that the DHSC in England is ‘not progressing with its transparent face mask “pilot” as they previously planned’ and records lamely that north of the border, ‘Feedback from our members in Scotland earlier this year indicate that each health board is approaching the rollout slightly differently’. 

Perhaps most tellingly, in talking about the transparent mask product itself, the RCSLT says that the see-through masks may only ‘slightly reduce risks associated with infectious aerosols’ and that they [the clear masks] ‘cannot be used to replace FFP2 or FFP3 respirators, or be used where care is being provided in poorly ventilated spaces, or with service users with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.’ Given these limitations with the see-through mask, one is left seeking the answer to the question, ‘what then was their point?’

From a financial point of view, there is an equally disappointing and depressingly predictable picture. At the time of the December ’21 press release it was claimed that 10% of the masks had been distributed, leaving a further 2,070,000 in storage cupboards somewhere. With no further triumphalist announcements forthcoming, may we presume that these coverings continue to languish unused or have already been destroyed, an ending similar to that which Mr Yousaf presided over earlier in the Covid crisis when half a million masks past their expiry date had to be withdrawn from NHS Scotland’s stockpile?

This represents, conservatively, a waste of public funds to the tune of £4,500,000; money that might have been spent on employing 130 nurses for a year. And there is no hard evidence that a single life has been saved by the use of these masks; in fact, the very lack of PR by politicians or health executives in the six-plus months that have elapsed since their unveiling suggests strongly that there have been no patient – or staff – benefits whatsoever.

Globus, having made a fortune from making disposable masks, are now finding ways to reap profits at the other end of the cycle. 

In January this year, Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University announced a collaboration with Globus to ‘give plastic PPE waste another life’, creating a ‘robust circular economy approach for plastics’. And in May the Hospital Times reported that, ‘Millions of items of PPE discarded in hospitals could be recycled into new products for the NHS, under a new partnership being launched by Imperial College Healthcare and the PPE manufacturer Globus Group.’ On top of the one billion masks already used within the NHS, as a result of increased usage during the Covid-19 crisis, within Imperial College Healthcare alone, a further 9.8 million surgical masks were used. In a project that will last 18 months, the Imperial College Trust and Globus will develop a new pilot scheme to ‘explore how to efficiently collect used single-use plastic facemasks across the Trust’s five hospital sites’. It will also evaluate the potential for the plastic materials to then be processed and the raw materials recycled and repurposed into new products for use in the NHS. 

Since the start of the ‘pandemic’, Globus has produced a billion masks and 300 million FFP respirators per year for healthcare trusts across the UK. No wonder, then, that Globus CEO Haraldur Agustsson said, “As a longstanding and trusted manufacturing partner to the NHS, we’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder with colleagues … to deliver a circular economy approach [which will] sit at the heart of Globus’ future strategy”.

For taxpayers, the only ‘circular economy approach’ in this fiasco appears to be their money circling the drain.

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Paul Stevens is part of the Smile Free campaign against forced masking in the UK.