Andrew Lloyd Webber 'right' to demand theatres reopen, scientist says

Andrew Lloyd Webber ‘is right’ to demand theatres reopen ‘come hell or high water’ next month, scientist claims as study shows face masks reduce Covid droplets by 99%

  • University College London researchers studied how face masks affect aerosols
  • Found coverings reduce droplets by 99% while singing, breathing or speaking
  • Professor Laurence Lovat said the findings suggest reopening theatres is safe 

Andrew Lloyd Webber (pictured) is right to expect theatres reopen ‘come hell or high water’ next month, a study has suggested

Andrew Lloyd Webber ‘is right’ to demand theatres reopen ‘come hell or high water’ next month because face masks significantly reduce transmission indoors, a scientist has claimed. 

Amid uncertainty around the June 21 ‘Freedom Day’, the composer, 73, said he is prepared to be arrested to prevent one of his theatres being closed on its reopening planned for June 25.

And a study by University College London now suggests that venues can be opened safely and securely as long as theatre-goers wear face masks. 

The Safe Return study claims coverings can reduce aerosol droplet — tiny beads of moisture that can contain coronavirus — transmission by as much as 99 per cent.

Scientists used android robots with special ventilators to determine how many droplets escaped when the machine simulated breathing, speaking or singing while wearing a face mask. 

University College London scientists used androids with special ventilators (pictured) to determine how many aerosols escaped when the machine exhaled while wearing a face mask

Researchers measured how far the droplets travelled using lasers, which were fed through computer models to track how they travelled in enclosed spaces. 

They used lasers to light up the droplets in the air in order to measure the size of the droplets and allow them to be tracked accurately. 

The study found theatres are ‘safe places to go’ as long as guests wear coverings, Professor of gastroenterology and biophotonics at UCL Laurence Lovat said.

Professor Lovat — an expert in oesophagus and bowel cancer — said the study showed face masks are robust enough to ensure theatre-goers are safe while inside.

He said: ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber is right. If theatre-goers wear appropriate masks and follow other rules already in place, theatres become safe places to go to.

‘Across all the tests — singing, breathing and speaking — these results show face masks provide significant and robust levels of safety against Covid transmission.’

At the start of the pandemic, experts warned Covid was mostly spread through fomites – clothes, utensils and objects likely to carry the virus.

They suggested an infection could be triggered by touching these and then placing a hand to the mouth, nose or eyes.

But now evidence suggests the risk from this action is tiny – less than five in 10,000 according to one paper – and the US CDC says it is no longer the main route of transmission.

Instead, scientists believe, the disease is mainly airborne which makes it much harder to contain.

The World Health Organization says SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing the pandemic, is mainly spread through droplets expelled through sneezes, coughs and even talking.

The droplets, which contain saliva, mucous and other substances from the airways including viruses, are larger than pure air particles.

After being released from the body they travel short distances before falling to the floor, which is why social distancing is so crucial. 

Some experts have also suggested aerosols – lighter particles released in breath and when someone talks – are the major driver.

It is for this reason that scientists are advising face masks are essential, to block the spread of particles, meaning fewer are put into the atmospher and able to be picked up.

They add that ventilation is key indoors to keep fresh air circulating and ensure these droplets don’t build up.

He added: ‘We developed a unique methodology for understanding the spatiotemporal movement of droplets. Appropriate face coverings really rapidly reduce it.

‘With our technology, we were able to build the engineering rig and androids ourselves. That allows us to expand up to test what really happens in theatres and big public spaces.

‘We place the engineering rig inside the android to replicate a real head. We can change the frequency to make it speak and produce different types of droplets. There is a huge variation.’

The team at UCL carried out their initial work as part of the CONFESS study of face masks. This was initiated to open up places of worship across the UK and to help work out what happens to the virus in open spaces at the university hospital.

Their work has now been widened to the Safe Return study looking at all indoor public gatherings.

Professor Lovat said: ‘Our UCL Safe Return Study is working more broadly towards making theatre and business spaces safer for everyone.

‘I believe the UK Government should support the re-opening of theatres and live entertainment and allow singing to return to places of worship.’

The pandemic has had a catastrophic financial impact on the theatre industry and many have remained closed despite the ease in Covid restrictions as it is not financially viable for them to open with reduced capacities. 

Lord Lloyd-Webber is preparing for a production of Cinderella, which is scheduled to open for previews on June 25 ahead of its world premiere in July. 

He told the Daily Telegraph: ‘We are going to open, come hell or high water.

‘[If the Government demands theatre openings are postponed] we will say “come to the theatre and arrest us”.’

Lord Lloyd-Webber said scientific evidence shows theatres are ‘completely safe’ and do not cause outbreaks.

He added: ‘If the Government ignore their own science, we have the mother of all legal cases against them. 

‘If Cinderella couldn’t open, we’d go “Look, either we go to law about it or you’ll have to compensate us”.’

This is not the first time Lord Lloyd-Webber has criticised those calling for a delay in reopening.

Last week he told the Daily Mail he may take legal action if his theatres are not allowed to welcome back crowds at full capacity.

WHAT HAVE STUDIES SHOWN ABOUT FACE MASKS AND COVID? 

Research on how well various types of masks and face coverings protect against coronavirus has varied but experts and politicians have generally leaned towards the idea that the chance of some protection is better than none.

In the UK, face coverings were first made mandatory in for public transport in June and later for shops and other indoor spaces in July. 

Here’s what studies have shown so far about whether masks work: 

FACE MASKS LOWER VIRUS R RATE (JANUARY 2021)

Researchers at Boston University in the US found wearing face masks is an effective way to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The study, published in the journal Lancet Digital Health, found a 10 per cent rise in self-reported mask wearing is associated with a three-fold increase in the odds of keeping the R number – the number of others each person with coronavirus infects – below 1.

Co-author of the study Ben Rader, of Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston University, said: ‘An important finding of this research is that mask wearing is not a replacement for physical distancing.’ 

INFECTIOUS DROPLETS WILL STILL SLIP THROUGH (DECEMBER 2020)

Scientists at New Mexico State University in the US found wearing a cloth mask may not shield the user totally from coronavirus because infected droplets can slip through, but it would significantly reduce how many.

‘Wearing a mask will offer substantial, but not complete, protection to a susceptible person,’ said Dr Krishna Kota, an associate professor at the university who led the research.

The study found while all masks blocked at least 95 per cent of droplets from coughs and sneezes – there was still a risk of the disease being passed on.

A MASK ‘WILL ALWAYS BE BETTER THAN NOTHING’ (DECEMBER 2020)

Research by the University of Massachusetts Lowell and California Baptist University in the US found wearing a used three-layer surgical mask can reduce the number of small droplets that are released into the air by two thirds.

Co-author Dr Jinxiang Xi said: ‘It is natural to think that wearing a mask, no matter new or old, should always be better than nothing.

‘Our results show that this belief is only true for particles larger than five micrometers, but not for fine particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers.’ 

MASK-WEARERS EQUALLY LIKELY TO CATCH VIRUS (NOVEMBER 2020)

A study by Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark suggested face masks may only offer the wearer limited protection against Covid infection.

Researchers found there was no statistically significant difference in the number of people who contacted the virus in a group wearing masks in public compared to a group that did not do so.

The study was carried out in April and May when Danish authorities did not recommend wearing face coverings. 

MASK LEADS TO THOUSANDS FEWER COUGH DROPLETS (AUGUST 2020)

Research by Edinburgh University in Scotland suggested cloth face masks are effective at reducing the amount of droplets spread by coughing or sneezing.

The findings suggest a person standing two metres from someone coughing without a mask is exposed to 10,000 times more droplets than from someone standing half a metre away wearing a basic single layer mask. 

Professor Paul Digard, of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, said: ‘The simple message from our research is that face masks work.

‘Wearing a face covering will reduce the probability that someone unknowingly infected with the virus will pass it on.’

N95 MEDICAL MASKS COULD PREVENT 99% OF SPREAD (AUGUST 2020)

A study by Duke University in North Carolina, US, found N95 masks are the most effective masks at reducing the spread of Covid-19.

The research published in the journal Science Advances, studied 14 types of face coverings.

Co-author Dr Eric Westman said: ‘If everyone wore a mask, we could stop up to 99 percent of these droplets before they reach someone else.

‘In the absence of a vaccine or antiviral medicine, it’s the one proven way to protect others as well as yourself.’ 

SURGICAL COVERINGS JUST AS GOOD AS N95 MASKS (MARCH 2020)

A University of Oxford study published on March 30 last year concluded that surgical face masks are just as effective at preventing respiratory infections as N95 respirators for doctors, nurses and other health care workers. 

N95 respirators are made of thick, tightly woven and moulded material that fits tightly over the face and can stop 95 percent of all airborne particles, while surgical masks are thinner, fit more loosely, and more porous.

The Oxford analysis of past studies – which has not yet been peer reviewed – found that surgical masks were worth wearing but any face mask is only as good as other health and hygiene practices.

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