The ‘new’ Oxford study on face coverings is sleight of hand

The new Oxford study released by Royal Society and British Academy does not prove face coverings work. It is a policy document masquerading as an investigation into face coverings.

The Mayor Of London claims new evidence supports the use of face coverings as effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19. He cites a University of Oxford study that claims: “face masks and coverings work – act now.

The study, from Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, is freely available for download from The Royal Society website. Nevertheless, we doubted that many people would take time to verify the claims so we took a look. What did we find?

The bulk of study is in fact an investigation into policies and behavioural factors behind face mask usage. Only a small section is dedicated to analysing the effectiveness of cloth face coverings and even this provides nothing new. Further, rather than performing randomised controlled trials (RCTs), which form the highest level of evidence in medical science, this report simply looked at existing research.

From this existing research, the authors forced a conclusion that ‘face masks and coverings work’ but with some very important caveats:

  1. The tests were carried out in medical and lab settings, not within the community.
  2. There were other factors that contributed to the masks’ effectiveness.
  3. The conclusions were based on small studies.

The study limitations can be found in the document appendix, table A5.1.

Face masks and coverings for the general public, 26 June 2020

What can we conclude from the release of this study?

It seems evidence for universal masking of healthy people in the community so flimsy that sleight of hand is needed in order to push public acceptance.

Update 19 July 2020:

A Spiked Online article published on 16 July, The government has lost control, draws the same conclusions:

The Royal Society published, on 26 June, a ‘rapid review of the science of the effectiveness of different face-mask types’ – a dense, 37-page tract which made the case for face masks. It was neither peer-reviewed nor opened to wide expert and public debate before being used to argue for policy.

…the hasty assembling of research articles in support of a policy position is not science, and demanding that the government introduce new ‘taboos’ is naive and clumsy social engineering, not careful examination of the facts.