Issue 242: 2020 07 16: Confusion

16 July 202o

C0vered in Confusion

Masks – why now?

By Lynda Goetz

Are you one of those who is confused, anxious or just plain p….d off? I ask of course about the latest U-turn of our esteemed Government, backed of course, by the Science – or at least some of it. Whether or not you are one of those who is living in fear of Covid-19 or one of those who takes a rather more sceptical view of the dangers to the majority of the population from the ravages of the virus, the new regulation mandating the wearing of masks in all shops (or risk a fine of £100) from the 24th July is just the latest in a series of illogical or belated rules emanating from the government at Westminster.

According to Matt Hancock, who as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was the one to deliver this bewildering piece of information, it will ‘keep our shopkeepers safe’ as well as ‘increase confidence in people to shop’. So, is this measure led by the health implications or by the economic implications?  Philip Johnston writing in The Telegraph on Tuesday concludes, after puzzling about the timing of this announcement (as well as the delay in implementation) that the government is driven by fear. Like a number of other journalists and commentators, he feels it cannot be coincidental that this announcement came hot on the heels of the report (Preparing for a Challenging Winter 2020/21) published the same day by the Academy of Medical Science; a report commissioned by the Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance. This report forecast a potential death toll of 120,000 in a second coronavirus wave if it coincided with a flu epidemic.

This, of course, is a ‘worst-case scenario’, ‘unless we get on top of things’. Getting on top of things apparently includes ‘wearing face coverings where social distancing is not possible’.  Already mandatory on public transport, shops are the next target. Why now and what about pubs and cafes? As many have already pointed out, there is something inherently nonsensical about wearing a face mask for shopping and then popping into a pub or café where the mask can be removed for the purpose of eating, drinking and presumably talking?  (John Lewis have already demanded clarification about the rules surrounding their in-store cafes). Interestingly however, as Toby Young points out on his Lockdown Sceptics website, courtesy of an ‘eagle-eyed informant’, those who produced the report have relied on Imperial College’s modelling.  Yes, the same Imperial College team which originally predicted 510,000 or possibly only 250,000 (compared with 45,000 actual) deaths and whose analysis finally prompted lockdown back in March.

On 25th June, the same day I wrote ‘Has Boris Lost his Balls?’, Sherelle Jacobs wrote an article in The Telegraph entitled ‘Britain has fallen down the rabbit hole of Second Wave hysteria’.  Both of us had likened the current bizarre world in which we are living to the crazy dream world of Lewis Carroll. Even at that point it was clear that in spite of the hysteria, Covid-19 was in decline – having never been the terrifying death machine we were led to believe it could turn out to be (and the BBC kept pretending it was).  In spite of this, release from  lockdown was proceeding only in ‘baby steps’; the message of ‘Stay Home’ having been so successful that people seemed terrified to leave that refuge. Now, we are being presented with yet more statistical modelling from Imperial College to justify the next round of authoritarian regulations.

Once again, the supposedly libertarian instincts of the PM are seemingly being thwarted by the politics of fear. Should there be a ‘Second Wave’ and Boris had refused to make mask-wearing mandatory, then he would have faced opprobrium both in this country and from abroad.  By caving in, he wins either way. He has ‘followed the Science’ and if there is no second wave then who is to say it was not because of mask-wearing?  If there is a terrible second wave which mask-wearing has failed to alleviate, then he has at least taken measures, however ineffective they turn out to be. As with lockdown, it seems that it is not easy to go against populist sentiment or the route taken by the rest of the world.  Unfortunately, like lockdown, it could all go on rather longer than is useful or helpful. Matt Hancock said in an interview on the Today programme this morning that these face covering regulations would be ‘for the foreseeable future’. Until we get that elusive vaccine, perhaps?

Not only is ‘the Science’ not unanimous* on the subject of the health benefits of mask-wearing, particularly when we are talking about the home-made fabric coverings, but the behavioural science might be even more questionable. One backbencher, Sir Desmond Swayne, not usually known for being outspoken called the new regulations ‘a monstrous imposition’ and said, “Nothing would make me less likely to go shopping than the thought of having to mask up”.  He is unlikely to be alone in that response.  In his article, Philip Johnston said the same thing and also pointed out that these regulations relating to shops and public transport may well prolong the time people spend working at home – thus undermining the Government’s call for people to go back to the workplace to get the economy moving.

Good manners and consideration for others are, of course, essential to make society work. Some are clearly still very concerned about catching coronavirus and the implications of doing so.  In Asia it has long been the norm to wear face masks not, as many Westerners believe, to counteract pollution (Get closer! Don Masks, by Richard Pooley), but to prevent passing infections to others.  However, if face coverings really are necessary, ‘for the foreseeable future’ then why were they not made compulsory months ago? Perhaps in accordance with the libertarian instincts of some members of Cabinet and in deference to the known aversion of Brits (at least in the ’old days’) at being told in an authoritarian manner how to behave? Now if they are belatedly to be compulsory, why wait for 10 days?  Shops have no preparations to make in order to comply with this legislation.  It is the customers who have to take the necessary measures, unless the retailers are proposing to distribute single use masks at the point of entry. Of course there is the slightly tricky problem of enforcement –already the subject of public comment by the police and retailers.

A number of Tories have torn up their membership cards and left the party as a sign of protest at this latest piece of legislation.  Barrister, Francis Hoar, who has argued that the government regulations are disproportionate to the threat said on Twitter that, ‘This is not only the most incompetent government of my lifetime it is also the most authoritarian. It is not remotely conservative’. Whilst it might have made some sense to impose face-coverings when lockdown was first lifted, two months later with the virus in steep decline, it feels completely wrong, totally illogical and yes, quite possibly even,  a ‘monstrous imposition’. I will almost certainly be one of those avoiding all non-essential shops. Sorry, Chancellor.


*At the outset of the pandemic the WHO advised against mask-wearing and only changed its advice last month ‘where social distancing was not possible’. There are few randomised control trials with conclusive results, although real world data appears to show that masks may be effective.


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