Ian Jones, professor of virology at Reading University, said: “It’s obvious that even a flimsy mask provides a level of protection, if not absolute protection. 

“The argument is moving away from protecting people from catching it to stopping people from transmitting it, so a national roll out would be advisable. They should be part of the unlocking procedures, because this virus isn’t going to disappear.”

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has previously warned that routine use of masks by the public could increase shortages for NHS staff on the front line.

On Friday, medics said the public should be encouraged to create home-made masks. Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary care research at Oxford University, said: “We are going to have to wear masks for quite a long time, but it should be a non-surgical approach – we should be encouraging people to make their own and masks for each other.”

She also said “it might become advisable” for children to wear masks if the Government’s aim was to protect 80 per cent of the population.

“Someone’s going to have to invent a mask that a child can wear comfortably. It may have to become part of the school uniform,” she said.

The chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has so far said the public use of face masks is “a very live issue”.

Earlier this week, Prof Whitty said: “What we are really trying to do is to work out under what circumstances, if any, should we extend the advice. The evidence is weak, but the evidence of a very small effect is there under certain circumstances.”

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