To mask or not to mask?
There is only one option if we don’t want to undo the NHS’ good work. Why is the Government still dithering?
Masks. Face coverings. Buffs.
There seems to be a lot of confusion as to what people should do to protect themselves in this pandemic. Handwashing is an obvious yes. Anything else, apparently, is a grey area. And the government has done nothing but erode the trust of the people when it comes to scientific advice.
Staying inside was the key message in Phase 1 but this has now moved on to the cryptic “Stay Alert”, as if the virus might pounce on you one night when you take the bins out. The public’s confusion has only increased thanks to Boris’ garbled messages (e.g. “go outside/don’t go outside” — see comedian Matt Lucas’ excellent parody here https://twitter.com/RealMattLucas/status/1259566662791106569?s=20 ) and tendency to contradict himself and his government’s policy.
First there was Dominic Cummings’ blatant flouting of lockdown rules and unimpressive suggestion that he drove a 60-mile round trip to a castle with his wife and four-year-old son in the backseat to “test his eyesight”. This resulted in no consequences for Cummings, who is, let’s not forget, an unelected advisor to the Prime Minister who still wields significant clout in policy-making. This, in a country which proudly calls itself a representative democracy, in which elected officials are held accountable by way of parliamentary norms and parliamentary oversight committees. Does this mean no one else should stay home when they are asked to do so by the government? Telling people to stay inside for the benefit of the NHS and the population only works if it applies to all.
It is therefore no wonder people are itching to get out and see their friends and families. If such a flagrant violation of the rules can be so publicly brushed off, what moral imperative is there for following the rules?
Next, Boris has opened up pubs and restaurants and encouraged people to spend and make merry, but somehow to also do so “sensibly”. Clearly the Government is trying to play it both ways: catering to those who want to open up the economy so they can avoid blame for a deeper recession, knowing what behaviour will ensue, all whilst issuing a few weak warnings so they can avoid blame when the R number inevitably spikes again. A clear example is the UK Prime Minister’s official Twitter account telling people “You can only meet people who don’t live with you outside. Whatever the weather #StayAlert” (https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1305143/coronavirus-uk-news-boris-johnson-twitter-10-downing-street-briefing-coronavirus-lockdown). The Tweet was swiftly deleted when Internet users pointed out this completely contradicted №10’s guidance on pubs, restaurants, bars and cinemas.
Finally we come to masks. The Government’s official position since the beginning of the pandemic has been that masks do not help or do not make a difference. This is obviously not the case.
Wearing a mask does make a difference, both for the mask-wearer’s protection, but more importantly, for the community. The key is that the mask provides a barrier for infectious droplets flying out from people’s noses and mouths when they breathe or speak or sing or yell. When I wear a mask, I don’t wear it for me, I wear it for you.
This is illustrated memorably in the “pee meme” circulating around social media:
In many parts of Asia, especially areas which had been hit hard with SARS back in 2003, it is not uncommon to see people wear masks when they are ill. In Hong Kong, it was initially thought that COVID-19 would hit the city hard, given its dense population and the ubiquitous usage of public transport. But thanks to the widespread usage of masks in public, this city of nearly 7.5 million people, has only had 1,269 cases and 7 deaths caused by COVID-19.
In the US, official government advice initially matched the UK’s advice, i.e. that masks made little difference.
Around 2.9 million confirmed cases and over 130,000 deaths later, the US has changed its tune. The NIAID Director and White House coronavirus task force member Dr Fauci, has admitted that the American public were discouraged from wearing masks initially only because of anticipated PPE shortages. In a recent interview (https://www.thestreet.com/video/dr-fauci-masks-changing-directive-coronavirus), he made clear that wearing a mask is certainly better than not wearing a mask. He now advocates wearing masks “unequivocally”, as a complementary measure to social distancing.
In the UK, we’ve ridiculed the incidents of American “Karens” throwing tantrums in the supermarket refusing to wear a mask (https://www.standard.co.uk/news/world/dallas-woman-supermarket-tantrum-face-mask-coronavirus-a4482891.html), and old white men bullying underpaid employees asking them to wear masks (https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/us-news/defiant-shopper-refusing-wear-face-22234552).
We shake our heads at the Floridians spouting conspiracy theories and aggressive declarations against “communist dictatorship orders” and the “devil’s law” mandating the wearing of masks (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-us-canada-53174415/they-want-to-throw-god-s-wonderful-breathing-system-out).
And yet hardly anyone in the UK wears a mask in public.
This is an absolute disgrace. Knowing that this simple gesture of wearing a face covering could stop the spread of this disease — knowing how many countries around the world have now mandated the wearing of face masks (over 50 — https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/countries-wearing-face-masks-compulsory-200423094510867.html) and deciding not to wear a mask or a face covering in public is selfish, plain and simple.
It is a slap in the face to the NHS and the brave, dedicated, hard-working essential workers who have tirelessly strived to save lives and keep communities going throughout the pandemic and the lockdown.
We can all do our part and don a face mask or a face covering. But Boris and the government have to step up.
Now that people will be going out and about, in and out of restaurants, bars, pubs and cinemas freely, there needs to be responsible guidance on how to keep people safe. There will inevitably be crowds, and people gathering in indoor spaces. Police have noted it is “crystal clear” that drunk people will not socially distance (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53296689).
We can do our bit. But will Boris?