February 28, 2024

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Covid-19: Runners should wear masks while jogging past other people, Oxford University expert claims

10 min read
Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health science at the University of Oxford, was accused of 'whipping up hysteria and anxieties' after suggesting joggers should wear masks while exercising outdoors
Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health science at the University of Oxford, was accused of 'whipping up hysteria and anxieties' after suggesting joggers should wear masks while exercising outdoors

Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health science at the University of Oxford, was accused of ‘whipping up hysteria and anxieties’ after suggesting joggers should wear masks while exercising outdoors

Runners should wear masks when they jog past other people, a leading expert suggested today. 

Professor Trish Greenhalgh, an expert in primary health care at Oxford University, said ‘puffing and panting’ runners should wear coverings because they can transmit Covid to people they pass on the street.

But an infectious disease expert at Public Health England accused her of ‘whipping up hysteria’ because forcing joggers to wear mask would be a disproportionate response to the amount of risk they pose.

Face coverings were first made mandatory for public transport in June and later for shops and other indoor spaces, after heated debates about whether they actually slow the spread of Covid. 

But they remain optional in outdoor spaces, with evidence suggesting coronavirus is less transmissible outside.

The debate comes after a Public Health England boss said facemasks with at least two or three layers are more effective at reducing the spread of the virus.

Dr Susan Hopkins told last night’s Downing Street press conference the ‘more layers you have the better’ — but the current guidance is to wear a single mask with at least two or three layers.

Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain today, Professor Greenhalgh cautioned that symptomless joggers can breathe coronavirus on to others when they run past, if they are not wearing a covering.

She said: ‘There is no doubt the virus is in the air. There is no doubt you can catch it if you inhale air that someone else has exhaled.

‘The exercising jogger, the puffing and panting jogger, you can feel their breath come and you can sometimes actually feel yourself inhale it. So there’s no doubt that there is a danger there. 

‘The other thing to say is that 40 per cent of Covid cases happen by catching it form people who have no symptoms.

‘So you’re jogging along, you think you’re fine and the next day you’ve developed symptoms of Covid but you’ve actually breathed that Covid on to someone. You know an old lady walking a dog or something like that.

‘I think it’s very important to be socially responsible.’

Professor Greenhalgh says symptomless joggers can breath Covid on to others as they run past if they are not wearing a covering. Pictured: A jogger wearing a face covering runs in St James's Park in central London on February 24

Professor Greenhalgh says symptomless joggers can breath Covid on to others as they run past if they are not wearing a covering. Pictured: A jogger wearing a face covering runs in St James’s Park in central London on February 24

Professor Devi Sridhar, a public health expert at the University of Edinburgh, added runners and cyclists should wear masks in crowded outside areas.

But she added that runners could ‘take off your mask and run freely’ when they are not surrounded by swathes of strangers. 

Professor Sridhar, who advises the Scottish government on Covid, told ITV: ‘It really depends how close they are to you and how heavily they’re breathing.


There is little proof that jogging while wearing a mask reduces the risk of Covid and no infection has ever been been proven to be linked back to a runner.

Other than the first lockdown last spring, the UK Government has encouraged people to get out and exercise even during the strictest of lockdowns, indicating that minsters and their expert advisers do not deem jogging to be a major mode of transmission.

But that does not mean it has never happened and a small handful of scientists have warned it is possible. 

Covid is transmitted in microscopic droplets of moisture that carry viral particles.  

It was originally thought that the main source of spread was via these droplets from coughs and sneezes.  

But more recent studies suggests it can spread just as easily in aerosols in the breath, prompting concerns about people exercising on crowded pavements.

A study by  Eindhoven University in the Netherlands and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium showed aerosols flow more than six feet behind an infected person while they walk, run or cycle.

The research last April raised the prospect of the outdoor exercisers being transmitters of the virus.

The scientists encouraged runners to steer clear of busy pavements and said jogging with a friend would be safer if people run side-by-side. 

Researchers are equally unsure about whether masks could prevent this from happening because there is still fierce debate about whether non-medical grade face coverings reduce transmission at all.

The largest real-world study into face coverings and Covid, known as Danmask, found there was no difference in infection rates between people who wore masks in public places and those who did not. 

The Copenhagen experts looked at 6,000 volunteers last spring before masks were mandatory there. 

However the study has come under scrutiny, with critics pointing out that less than half of participants actually wore masks when they were supposed to.

Meanwhile, a study last month showed that particles expelled from a person’s mouth as they speak or breathe can swirl and spread into the proximity of other people, even when wearing a mask. 

The study by the Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo found exhaled air from a person who is not wearing a mask moves downward due to gravity.

However, when a mask is worn while standing or sitting, the cloud of exhaled particles tends to attach to that person’s body and flows upwards 

The UK Government introduced a suite of measures to reduce transmission while outside last year, including widening pavements to make social distancing possible on busy streets.

Face masks were made mandatory on public transport in June and in shops and indoor public spaces later in July, but remain optional while outside.  

‘This can spread through the air and so it is important that runners should think – I do think where am I running and I’m trying to be attentive to pedestrians because the sidewalks are there for pedestrians in busy areas and high streets.

‘[When] you’re out in the park, take off your mask and run freely.

‘I think we need some consideration for each other right now. We’re in a pandemic and just, you know, think how it feels for other people.

‘So if you’re going to cycle in a busy area, wear a mask.’

Professor Greenhalgh added: ‘I’ve got a mask here and you can pull it up and pull it down and that takes two seconds to do.

‘So wear it when you’re going along, jogging on the high street. Take it off when you get to the parks, what I did this morning. It’s not difficult.’

She also said that the World Health Organization had ‘dragged its feet’ over mask wearing.

Professor Greenhalgh said: ‘I’m not sure that particular recommendation does represent expert opinion, there’s no doubt that the virus is in the air, there is no doubt you can catch it if you inhale air someone else has exhaled.  

‘The puffing and panting jogger, you can feel their breath come and you can sometimes feel yourself inhale it, there is no doubt there is a danger there.’

But Dr Jake Dunning, an infectious disease expert at Public Health Expert, said the suggestion that people wear masks outdoors is shifting the focus away from high risk indoor transmission of the virus.

He said on Twitter: ‘[Forcing joggers to wear masks is] totally disproportionate to any reasonable estimate of risk. Stop whipping up hysteria and anxieties. 

‘Stop singling out outdoor runners for no good scientific reason and instead focus on avoiding the actual high risk, indoor scenarios for transmission.’ 

Viewers disagreed with the argument, with one writing: ‘Protect the NHS. We are, by running, keeping fit, as Covid is clearly worse when you are fat and unfit. Which costs lives and liberty. Our high fat, low exercise population is a key reason why we are dying in greater numbers. Whether people want to talk about it or not.’ 

Another said: ‘I’m a keen runner/ triathlete. I really look for safe distance to run in, away from walkers etc. If I can’t I put my hand over my face and look away from people.’ 

A third wrote: ‘When I run I certainly don’t puff and pant over anyone and I steer clear of others, it’s not difficult! I couldn’t run with a mask on.’ 

Tom, 54, who previously weighed 22 stone, argued that for many people exercise has been their saving grace during the pandemic, and that it’s ‘hard enough’ to run without a mask. 

He said: ‘I think for millions of people, lockdown through till winter, the only thing they’ve had is running, I’m part of an online group, we keep ourselves going by supporting each other online. I don’t think I can do a run with a mask on, it’s hard enough with a mask.’ 

Host Piers went on to share his distain for runners who exercise along his high street, comparing unfit joggers to ‘giant snails’ and ‘panting, wheezing show offs’.

‘I have a real problem along my high street’, he said, ‘I have a problem with them in the normal times, non pandemic times. 

‘There’s something so narcissistic about these people running, especially if they’re not very fit and are bouncing along the street barging into everybody. The ones who go around you like a giant snail

‘I have an inherent problem with joggers on high streets I think its the ultimate show off nonsense, but in the pandemic…what about my right not to be infected with Covid-19 by some panting, wheezing show off?’ 

Tom replied: ‘The strict rule that should be enforced is social distancing, if you are a runner you should know you’re breathing more deeply and you should try and not run into people and run near them.’    

Viewers disagreed that runners should be made to wear face coverings, with one arguing that those who keep fit are 'protecting the NHS' by trying their best to maintain their health

Viewers disagreed that runners should be made to wear face coverings, with one arguing that those who keep fit are ‘protecting the NHS’ by trying their best to maintain their health


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: 


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.’ 


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.


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.’ 


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. 


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.’


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.’ 


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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