The Tattered Mask of Civility | Tim Dennis


The increasing whirlpool of opinion on the use of facemasks by the general public reached a head on Monday as Boris Johnson finally decided to pick a side, confirming that from 24th July it would become compulsory to adopt them in shops and supermarkets. In so doing he contradicted the statement made by Michael Gove barely twenty-four hours previously and did little to quell debate either on the necessity for facemasks or the competence of the government in its handling of Covid-19.

There is no significant consensus on the efficacy of facemasks in protecting people from catching Covid-19. The World Health Organisation (WHO) changed its advice on the 8th June, stating that, “governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult.” However it went on to concede that, “The use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection or source control, and other personal and community level measures should also be adopted to suppress transmission of respiratory viruses.” The WHO is also alleged to have changed its stance in favour of facemasks due to political lobbying despite their own committee not being in favour.

The UK government itself stated that, “the evidence of the benefit of using a face covering to protect others is weak and the effect is likely to be small” in its 23rd June guidelines to restaurants and pubs. The Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Chris Witty and both of his deputies (Professor Jonathan Van Tam and Dr Jenny Harries) have all recommended against the mass adoption of facemasks by the general public. Given that this new regulation is being adopted at a time when deaths and transmissions are at their lowest level and with apparently different rules for other industries you can forgive people for being confused.

A dispiriting if inevitable development has been the immediate cementing of what is yet another emergent ideological orthodoxy. Those in favour of masks – and of their adoption by everybody else – have more or less condemned their opponents in the same familiar absolute terms that define almost any issue in Britain these days. The depressing consequence has been the same vicious cycle of denouncement and insults seen over Brexit, racism, sexuality and just about anything else. The last five years seem to have been a catalyst for exposing just how incapable society is not just of talking, but doing so with any generosity of spirit to those involved in the conversation.

The biggest difficulty with what should be the relatively small issue of facemasks is that like a number of the hot topics of the day, being in favour of them is a short route to virtue signaling. For those of that disposition, and judging by recent social crises there are plenty, it is an irresistible draw. How could you possibly be against such an apparently virtuous and seemingly simple action? You must have no regard for the lives of others, or perhaps you are unable to exercise basic courtesy. Apparently there is no courtesy in respecting the ability of others to disagree or to make their own informed choices. It brings with it the power to shame dissenters in front of others and to make a judgement of character. It is the transferal from identity politics of the same kind of poisoning of any kind of rational debate. The government making masks mandatory has handed a weapon forged with legitimacy to those who enjoy dividing society from an illusory moral high ground. We can only wait to see if matters splinter further, perhaps into humiliating people for the type or colour of mask being worn. In any case it is not hard to see the enthusiastic rush of those people who enjoy vilifying those who do not share their beliefs on other polarised topics to this new and glorious cause.

There is a seemingly ignored issue that facemasks and ‘face coverings’ as insisted upon by their most enthused disciples are not created equal even if there was significant evidence that they were effective. You do not have to spend much time observing people wearing them to notice the variety of sophistication, materials and fits. Even if they were there is no guarantee that the people using them are doing so with a consistent level of care. The wearing of masks might also present a false sense of security that distracts from the other measures such as social distancing and hand washing, both of which have been given a far higher emphasis by medical professionals.

At least the government made an attempt to remove the burden of enforcement from shop workers themselves, although it remains to be seen how much that will reduce instances of disorder. The police were no doubt thrilled to be handed another petty and near impossible assignment that is unlikely to win them fans amongst those who feel that traditional areas of police work are under-resourced. Perhaps it will not matter if many of those who would prefer to remain unmasked choose not to go to shops and choose instead to continue shopping online. The fear created over Covid-19 at the outset means that there is already a level of reluctance among some to return to normal and the message that compulsory masking sends is unlikely to invigorate them. Rather than encourage shoppers this measure may end up accelerating the deterioration of Britain’s high streets.

The public would surely be broadly in favour of the freedom to make an informed choice over facemasks based on the evidence available rather than have it enforced by a government in whom public confidence over the incoherent approach to Covid-19 is low. As we move towards the economic consequences of existing measures it does not bode well that over something as simple as a facemask people are unable to muster enough trust in each other to let them voice a contrary opinion. At least the divisive zealots using this as a means to another moral crusade will have their abuse somewhat stifled by their own adherence to its rules.  


Photo by Thomas Weiler on Flickr.

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