BEN STANSALL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
After months of uncertainty, the government has finally – cautiously – nudged the public in England towards wearing face coverings. From July 24, everyone will be required to wear face coverings in shops or face a £100 fine. It’s a victory for science and common sense. But the real fight starts now.
For months, England’s attitude to face coverings has made it an outlier. Wearing a face covering in shops has been mandatory in Germany since April 22, since April 12 all citizens in Israel have been required to face coverings in public while Spain has mandated face coverings in all public areas where it is not possible to maintain distances of at least two metres since May 20. In Scotland, face masks have been mandatory in shops since July 10.
In England, the advice has remained that – apart from on public transport, where face coverings are compulsory – people need only wear a mask in enclosed public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible. The advice clearly did not filter down as far as the chancellor Rishi Sunak, who posed maskless and gloveless while serving ramen and katsu curries to Wagamama customers as he launched the government’s “eat out to help out” meal deal scheme. Days earlier, Labour leader Keir Starmer had also opted for a photo opportunity – this time at a pub in central London – where he appeared without a face covering.
Just one day before the government’s U-turn, senior minister Michael Gove told the BBC that the government wouldn’t be making face coverings mandatory and would instead leave it to common sense for people to decide whether they wear coverings or not. “It is basic good manners, courtesy and consideration to wear a face mask if, for example, you’re in a shop,” he said.
It is perhaps little surprise, then, that enthusiasm for face masks in the UK has lagged far behind other countries. A poll by YouGov on June 1 found that only 21 per cent of Britons were wearing protective coverings in public. This was far below other European countries, such as Italy, Spain, France and Germany, where prominent politicians have all been photographed wearing masks. It was also considerably lower than the USA, Canada and Mexico. Of those surveyed, only people in Australia and Scandinavia were less likely to wear masks.
Now that it has become government policy, the mask backlash is starting to begin. In the Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley wrote that “face masks are horrible and inhuman. The best reason I’ve heard for wearing one is politeness.” On Twitter, the hashtag “NoMasks” started trending with dozens more commentators chipping in to compare compulsory face coverings to “muzzles”. Already the battle lines are being drawn between those who say that being required to wear a mask is an infringement on civil liberties and those who counter that not wearing a mask infringes the right of people to be in a public space without fear of being infected with a potentially deadly virus.
But the politicisation of public health interventions is a dangerous road to go down. In the US, Donald Trump has suggested that wearing a face mask could be seen as an anti-Trump statement of protest, while mocking Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for wearing a mask in public. A poll from Pew Research Centre found that Democrats were more likely to say they wear masks than those who identified as Republican. Trump has since made a point of wearing a mask in public.
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But we only need to look at the wave of fresh coronavirus cases in the United States to see what happens when public health becomes a political football. In many cases, it is those states that eased lockdown quickly, or were slow to implement mandatory mask wearing, that are now suffering the most.
Politicising the fight over face coverings ignores their potential health benefits. At their core, mask-wearing makes sense in public spaces for a simple reason: it makes it less likely that those ill with coronavirus will pass it on to other people. It is for that reason that on June 5 the WHO changed its guidance to states, recommending that people wear face masks in all public settings where social distancing could not be maintained.
Wearing a mask is inconvenient – it’s annoying to have foggy glasses and to struggle to make yourself understood on occasion. But it’s also a simple act of altruism that sends a strong signal to anyone who sees you wearing that mask. It tells that person that you care about their health, and are prepared to endure a minor inconvenience for something that could benefit everyone. It’s a simple nuance that residents of Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan didn’t need to be told – and as a consequence have managed to avoid the worst consequences of this devastating virus. It is a lesson that those in the UK who resist compulsory mask wearing would do well to learn, and quickly.
Matt Reynolds is WIRED’s science editor. He tweets from @mattsreynolds1
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