‘Dither and Delay’: Why Have The New Rules Surrounding Face Masks Taken So Long?

Tuesday brought with it welcome news of the government’s latest U-turn as health secretary Matt Hancock announced that face coverings will be made mandatory in shops from the 24th July. With countless pieces of evidence emerging on the effectiveness of masks at reducing the transmission of COVID-19, it is the next logical step considering that shops are one of the most congested indoor areas at present.

My only qualm is why the government has delayed reaching this decision when, as usual, the evidence has been staring at them in the face for some time.

Whilst the evidence for community usage of face masks is still developing as we try to tackle the new virus, there have been multiple papers that were published some time ago indicating their effectiveness. One study from Germany found that the daily growth rate of reported infections fell by 40% after masks were made compulsory in the city of Jena.

George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also revealed in an interview his belief that the biggest mistake of the US and Europe is the lack of widespread mask usage.

why has it taken almost four months for us to take the advice seriously?

He points out that transmission is made possible by droplets and close contact; when you speak there are droplets coming out of your mouth which can be prevented from infecting others if you wear a mask to catch them. This interview was published on the 27th March, so why has it taken almost four months for us to take the advice seriously?

The blame cannot rest entirely on the UK government as the World Health Organisation did not change its advice regarding masks until the 5th June. This does not change the fact that it has still taken the government almost two months to enforce the new policies – and they have displayed a shocking lack of unanimity in that time.

The public need clear lockdown rules, and its quite hard to get them when the cabinet are struggling to form a consensus on the issue

The announcement came just days after Michael Gove told Andrew Marr that wearing face masks should be “basic good manners”; however, as I gaze around my local Aldi it’s clear to me that good manners just aren’t going to cut it. The fact of the matter is that the public need clear lockdown rules, and its quite hard to get them when the cabinet are struggling to form a consensus on the issue.

I suspect that the vast majority will have no problem with wearing a mask when shopping now that it will be enforced; it is after all a minor inconvenience for most and a courtesy to others as well. Many people, who could well be wandering around your local supermarket, have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections, making mask wearing crucial to reduce the airborne pathogens that are even more detrimental indoors.

Whilst masks may not be very effective at protecting yourself, they protect those around you – therefore if everyone complies we can also protect ourselves. The anti-mask protest in London’s Hyde Park on Friday is indicative of some opposition to the new rule, with protesters viewing it as an infringement on civil liberties.

Organised by ‘Keep Britain First’, protesters were quoted as saying “the imposition of masks sixteen weeks after the pandemic is absolutely ludicrous”, showing the dangerous consequences of a cabinet lacking in both unity and conviction.

Fortunately, judging by the numbers of the protest, this frame of mind does appear to be safely within the minority for the UK. With more and more research emerging on the benefits of mask usage it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to deny this next step – for any benefit, despite how marginal it may be, must be exploited.

It is crucial that with the adoption of this new rule we create a social shift

Before, when entering a shop as one of the few wearing a mask, some may have felt it strange and unnecessary – pedantic even – given that the vast majority still opted to be mask-free. It is crucial that with the adoption of this new rule we create a social shift, so that wearing a mask is no longer seen as unusual, but rather the opposite being true.

It is also important, however, that we remember that the mandatory nature of mask-wearing does not apply to those under 11 and to those with certain disabilities – many of which are not visible, so reserve your judgement. Now, the challenge still remains for the country to continue amidst a pandemic being controlled by a government that seems to at present be characterised by its ability to always be 5 steps behind.

Anna Friel

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Featured image courtesy of  Vera Davidova via Unsplash. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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