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A quarter of a million clear face masks are to be delivered to NHS and social care workers on the frontline to support those who use lip-reading and facial expressions to communicate.

With around 12 million people in the UK thought to have hearing loss, the masks will be valuable for people who need to lip-read to communicate during the ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

The deal, reached with US-based company ClearMask, will see the 250,000 masks distributed to NHS trusts and social care providers across the UK over the coming weeks, confirmed the Department of Health and Social Care.

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According to the government, the see-through masks have met safety standards and also boast an anti-fogging barrier to ensure the face and mouth are always visible.

Allysa Dittmar, President of ClearMask, said: “As a company that was started in 2017 in a response to the need for improved, visual communication for the deaf and hard of hearing community, we immediately understood the critical need for such see-through, transparent masks during this pandemic for many different groups of people.

“We were proud to help answer the call for critical PPE for the NHS, and this partnership is a reflection of the hard work and dedication of many individuals involved in the push for better accessibility and care during this time.”

In particular, the new masks will aim to help those with conditions such as hearing loss, autism and dementia.

“This pandemic has posed numerous challenges to the sector, so we are always on the hunt for simple solutions to support those giving and receiving care,” commented Minister for Care Helen Whately.

“The introduction of clear face masks will help overcome some of the difficulties carers wearing PPE are facing communicating with people who rely on lip-reading.”

The minister added that if the first set of 250,000 masks proves to be a success, the department, along with NHS England and Improvement, will work with suppliers on increasingly future orders based on demand.

“We welcome the procurement of clear face masks, which has the potential to improve the accessibility of health and social care services for those who rely on seeing facial expressions and lip-reading to communicate, including people who are deaf or have hearing loss,” commented Roger Wicks, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Action on Hearing Loss.

“People need to understand the information and instructions that they are given by health and care professionals: ineffective communication and misunderstandings have the potential to harm the health and wellbeing of people with hearing loss.”

The Department of Health and Social Care confirmed that the clear masks will be made available across the UK’s entire health and social care system, with the government working with the devolved administrations on allocations of the masks.

“We hope that different services across the NHS and social care are able to access clear masks and effectively match them to patient need,” added Roger.

“It will also be important that these masks are complemented by effective communication tips and deaf awareness among staff to ensure that people with hearing loss get the support they need.”

The first delivery has already been distributed to NHS trusts, with further deliveries over the next couple of weeks.

Social care providers will also have access to the masks through a new pilot system with Local Resilience Forums.

Sarah White, Head of Policy and Campaigns at national disability charity Sense, added: “The last few months have been particularly hard on disabled people and a part of this are the barriers that PPE brings to many of them in terms of their communication. While PPE is of course vital in keeping everyone safe during this pandemic, many disabled people rely on lip-reading and facial expression to communicate, which means masks present themselves as a big challenge.

“We’ve therefore been delighted to work with the Department of Health and Social Care and other organisations to raise awareness of this issue and we welcome the introduction of clear masks for use in frontline health and social care services, which will benefit millions of disabled people in this country.”

In July 2020, Sonia Carley, Founder of UK-based Friendly Face Mask, called for technical and financial support for her transparent, medical-grade face masks, designed to help those who lipread and use hearing aids.

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