Two cabinet ministers walk into a Pret. One is wearing a mask, and the other is not. If it seems farcical that this was on the front of a major newspaper, then that’s probably because it is. Masks in shops, but not in pubs and restaurants? Fines, or no fines? The government has kept us guessing about face coverings and masks. While their previous blunders can be excused for being ‘difficult decisions’, this one should have been simple.
I hate masks. I wore one to the supermarket the other day and I felt self-conscious and silly. With a mask on, my face is transformed into a massive forehead. How could it be that this tiny piece of fabric was protecting me from COVID-19? Not since I was 16 (oh, the heady days of year 11) have I allowed anyone to tell me what to wear. Now the government is imposing fines of up to £100 for those who refuse to wear masks in shops.
Wearing masks seems like a small and futile act of desperation. But evidence suggests covering the mouth and nose can alleviate the spread of the virus. 86% of surveyed doctors answered that the public should wear face masks in spaces where they cannot or will not socially distance. An Oxford study found that masks are effective in reducing transmission as part of a policy package.
The Oxford report also highlighted the need for consistent and clear messaging, something the government has failed to provide once again. If they were sensible, they would have instructed the public to wear masks in public spaces, no ifs, no buts. Instead, they have flip-flopped between a headache-inducing variety of different messages. All we needed was one sentence: wear masks in public spaces. Ultimately, though, the cabinet has managed to further divide and confuse people. Boris’ claim that ‘We’ll do absolutely everything in our power to prevent a second spike’ is ridiculous given the government’s refusal to mandate people to wear masks in public.
It is clear wearing masks is a significant cultural shift for many. They can be a little uncomfortable, and it was understandable that during the beginning of lockdown medical professionals and key workers were prioritised. But wearing a mask is also a very easy way not only to directly curb the spread of the virus, but also to change attitudes around risk.
Everyone understands the concept of herd immunity when it is applied to a vaccine, but refusing to acknowledge that there are other actions that can be taken to reduce risk is wilful ignorance. Wearing masks can encourage and remind people to follow other social distancing guidelines even before they directly impede the transmission of the virus. Following rules about wearing masks will make people more likely to follow other guidelines.
It’s hard to tell what is more irritating: the masks themselves, or people refusing to wear them. The pure selfishness of refusing to undergo a little inconvenience when it might save another pain or allow someone who has been self-isolating for months to leave their home is baffling. For a nation that has historically prided itself on its ‘blitz spirit’, it is pretty clear who would have left the lights on.
It is astounding that such a simple change in our behaviour might have such a significant impact on the course of the virus. That it might be derailed by sheer obstinance is incredibly frustrating, especially for those of us who are stuck in Devon. If all else fails, pretending to be a superhero in a supermarket is quite fun–Winter Soldier, anyone?