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Memo to the Guardian: Have you muzzled the facts on masks?


This is an open letter to Andrew Gregory, Health Editor of the Guardian. 

Dear Andrew,

We are a group of citizens dedicated to promoting a more open, democratic society. We have tried to contact you on several occasions without success, so we have published this open letter in the hope you will see it and reply.

On November 18, you published a story with the headline: ‘Mask-wearing cuts Covid incidence by 53%, says global study.’

The sub-heading was: ‘Researchers said results highlight the need to continue with face coverings, social distancing and handwashing alongside vaccine programmes’.

We were struck by this, since it goes against a substantial body of evidence that concludes that mask-wearing offers little if any protection against viruses, for example these studies


You did not reference the paper on which you base your article but an internet search reveals it. (Stella Talic corresponding author). You paraphrase uncritically: ‘Vaccines are safe and effective and saving lives around the world. But … it is not yet known if jabs will prevent future transmission of emerging coronavirus variants …

‘Results from more than 30 studies from around the world were analysed in detail, showing a statistically significant 53 per cent reduction in the incidence of Covid with mask wearing …’ 


We find it puzzling that you did not mention that ten days earlier the CATO Institute (an American libertarian think-tank) published a 61-page working paper entitled: Evidence for Community Cloth Face Masking to Limit the Spread of SARS-CoV 2: A Critical Review

It tentatively concluded: ‘Of 16 quantitative meta-analyses, eight were equivocal or critical as to whether evidence supports a public recommendation of masks, and the remaining eight supported a public mask intervention on limited evidence, primarily on the basis of the precautionary principle.’ 

Given this striking incongruity, we have ten questions:

1. Have you read the Talic paper?

2. Do you agree that it is an exaggeration to describe it as a ‘global study’?

3. Have you read the associated British Medical Journal editorial?

4. Do you agree that your headline: ‘Mask-wearing cuts Covid incidence by 53%, says global study’ is misleading?

5. Were you aware of this when you chose the heading?

6. Why has the Guardian not published the results of the many studies which say there is no evidence of benefit and some evidence of harm?

7. Do you agree that professional journalism requires balance, in the public interest?

8. Would a more accurate headline be: ‘The majority of randomised controlled trials fail to establish that wearing face masks protects anyone against viruses’?

9. Is the Guardian’s policy to publish only information that supports a particular set of beliefs?

10. Are you prepared publicly to debate this matter? 


Here is a little more detail about our concerns. The CATO meta-analysis states: ‘In non-healthcare settings, of the 14 RCTs (randomised control trials) identified by the authors that evaluated face mask efficacy compared to no-mask controls in protecting against respiratory infections other than Covid-19, 13 failed to find statistically significant benefits … of eight RCTs that evaluated face mask efficacy against respiratory illness transmission in non-healthcare household settings, all eight failed to find a statistically significant benefit for the use of face masks alone …’

This gives a very different picture from the one your newspaper article presented. 

Talic et al claim to have screened 36,729 papers, but found only six on masks they considered eligible for inclusion. Yet an internet search reveals numerous relevant research articles. How can the authors have overlooked this, and how can their conclusion be true given the many other conflicting studies? 


We dug a little deeper and found that several of the papers cited by Talic et al are telephone surveys covering multiple variables, with questionable methodology.

For example, one study investigated the effectiveness of mask-wearing in families in their homes of laboratory-confirmed Covid-19 cases in Beijing and concluded that face mask use was ’79 per cent effective in reducing transmission’.  

Strangely, the paper contains a passage that seems to undermine the whole study: ‘As the compliance of UFMU (universal face mask use) would be poor in the home, there was difficulty and also no necessity for everyone to wear masks at home …’ 

This seems to imply that the use of face masks by family members in their households included in the study was sporadic and that therefore the study has no scientific merit.

Equally strange, one of six papers referenced in the Talic paper is the Danish RCT mask study, which the authors presumably included to support their conclusions, even though it doesn’t. In fact, the study was inconclusive (a difference of between 1.8 per cent and 2.1 per cent)

Even more peculiar, the Talic article is linked in the BMJ to an editorial published simultaneously which directly refutes the claim of a 53 per cent reduction in Covid incidence.

It says: ‘Face masks seem to have a real but small effect for wearer and source control, although final conclusions should await full reports of the trials from Bangladesh and Guinea-Bissau.  

‘However, the quality of the current evidence would be graded – by GRADE (Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development and Evaluations) criteria – as low or very low, as it consists of mainly observational studies with poor methods (biases in measurement of outcomes, classification of PHSM – Public Health and Social Measures – and missing data), and high heterogeneity of effect size. More and better research are needed.’ 


How can such inconsistencies be overlooked by a senior editor of a quality broadsheet?  


Professor David Seedhouse, BSc (Hons), PhD 

Bruce Luffman 

Sarah Goode, PhD 

Alex Thorn 

Simon Fletcher 

Sandy French 

Fiona Swan, LLB, Solicitor (Rtd.) 

Monica Coyle 

Daphne Havercroft, Project Management Professional (PMP)®
Phil Button, BSc, MBCS   

Professor Chris Jesshope, BSc Hons (Mathematics), MSc (computer science), PhD (electronics) 

Philip Morkel, Managing Director Engineering Services, Law Degree, MBA, S/W Project management 

Tony Woodcock 

Dr Damien Bush, MA, VetMB, Cert. SAS, MRCVS, RCVS, Recognised Advanced Practitioner Small Animal Surgery 

Neil Sherry 

Michael Welby 

Shirley Dudfield 

Maddy Conway 

Peter Whitehead 

Vanessa Peutherer, Author, Learning & Development Consultant (Health Care Ethics), RGN, ENG, ENB (Rtd) 

Michael Philips, BSc (Hons) Mathematics 

Edina Atkinson 

Adam Mockett, BA (Hons) 

Mike Davies, Project Manager (Rtd) 

Alex Camm MPhil, CQSW 

Susan James, FCILEX 

Myra Forster-van Hijfte, DVM, CertVR CertSAM, DipECVIM, FRCVS 

Dr. Jo-Ann van Eijck, Ph.D, Former Associate Professor at University of Hong Kong 

Helen Myles, BSc (Hons) Maths and Psychology 

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David Seedhouse
David Seedhouse
David Seedhouse is the creator of Our Decision Too.

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