(CNN)Confronting new, more transmissible variants of the coronavirus and a winter spike in infections, a number of European countries are beginning to make medical-grade face masks mandatory in the hope that they can slow the spread of the disease.
European countries mandate medical-grade masks over homemade cloth face coverings
The French government has now mandated that citizens wear single-use surgical FFP1 masks, more protective FFP2 filtering facepiece respirators or fabric masks which meet the same "Category 1" specifications -- blocking more than 90% of particles -- in all public places. In layman's terms, homemade masks will no longer cut it.
It follows a decision by the German government on Tuesday requiring all people to wear either FFP1 or FFP2 masks while on public transport, in workplaces and in shops. The move came after the German state of Bavaria introduced an even more stringent measure: Enforcing surgical grade N95 respirators, which filter 95% of air particles, in stores and on public transport.
Austria will introduce its own FFP2 mandate on public transport and in shops from January 25.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel cited the spread of new coronavirus variants, which were first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, as the reason for stricter requirements. "I urge people to take this seriously. Otherwise it is difficult to prevent a third wave," Merkel told journalists in Berlin on Thursday, adding that a video summit of European Union leaders would be focused squarely on ways to counter the spread of variants on the continent.
During the Thursday summit, EU leaders weighed tougher border restrictions to limit non-essential travel and agreed to a common framework for rapid testing, but mask-wearing was not discussed.
The European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) warned Thursday that new variants of the coronavirus could cause more hospitalizations and deaths across Europe, urging countries to start taking extra measures -- from physical distancing, to quarantining and contact tracing -- immediately. The ECDC currently recommends face masks in indoor and outdoor situations when physical distancing cannot be guaranteed, but does not specify what type of face covering should be used.
Meanwhile, in Britain, where a highly-contagious coronavirus mutation is driving a deadly third wave of the virus, medical-grade masks have not been mandated in public. Instead, face coverings are required on public transport, in shops and in other indoor settings where social distancing may be difficult.
In the UK government's Covid guidance, scarves and bandanas are considered to be appropriate face coverings, despite evidence they do not effectively block respiratory droplets emitted by the wearer.
Faced with more transmissible variants, some scientists say that the focus should be on limiting the amount of viral aerosol exposure as much as possible -- and recent studies suggest the best way to do that is through medical-grade masks, in addition to other public health measures.
Unlike fabric and surgical masks, which protect other people from larger respiratory droplets emitted when speaking, coughing or sneezing -- in other words, outflowing air -- FFP masks protect the wearer by filtering both the outflow and inflow of air. They can also provide some level of protection against smaller droplets, or aerosols. When fitted correctly, FFP2 masks can filter at least 94% of particles.