Volte-Face: Why the Government’s Face Mask U-Turn is Unnecessary | Luke Doherty


The government has announced that face masks will be mandatory in supermarkets and retail stores from July 24th, with the threat of fines up to £100 for non-compliance. The announcement has caused fury among some Conservatives, who see it as an impingement of their civil liberties, whilst others have passionately defended the government on their U-turn.

The drama over being forced to wear a face mask by the government illustrates the tension that exists between libertarians and conservatives within the Conservative Party, and it should cause us to think very carefully about a simple and fundamental question – how much power should the State have? History informs us that totalitarian regimes have often been bloody and horrific, yet some would still prefer an authoritarian state with the “right people” in charge. It is difficult to interpret this as anything other than wanting a favourable right wing despot in charge – but on the condition that one is unaffected by any possible negative consequences.

Many have justified the government’s decision to impose mandatory face masks on the basis that they are acting in the national interest and for the common good. It would be easier to agree with this view had such a decision been made earlier in the lockdown, when the rate of infection was higher. Instead, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jonathan Van Tam said in early April that ‘there is no evidence that general wearing of face masks by the public who are well affects the spread of the disease in our society.’ Therefore, is it really that surprising that ordinary individuals are less than enthusiastic to wear a mask, particularly when the rate of infection is down to 0.01%? The scaremongering and guilt-tripping has to come to an end.

Mandating the public to wear face masks in stores may negatively impact small businesses if there is a large increase in online shopping, particularly by those who might not feel comfortable wearing a mask and are not prepared to risk a potential fine. The effects of online shopping have hit the high-end department store John Lewis hard, and they have been forced to close eight premises as a result of the decline in physical footfall. Who knows what might happen to small businesses, particularly as many have not re-opened with the easing of lockdown restrictions. The extent to which mandatory face masks will exacerbate the decline of the British high street is yet to be seen. Certainly, there is little confidence it is a measure that will be welcomed by all.

What makes the recent face mask announcement a controversial policy idea is not that it has been difficult to police and enforce mask-wearing on public transport, or that stores have already had difficulty maintaining a one-way system and social distancing. It is the fact that we do not accurately know how many people have died from Covid-19, instead of having the virus and dying from another cause. The reality of this fiasco is hugely embarrassing for the government. We have to ask ourselves how many healthy people who contract Covid-19 subsequently die from it, and how many of those who do die from the virus have secondary health issues. The fear tactics cannot be allowed to continue. Many have tried to avoid answering these questions – but perhaps the Health Secretary’s investigation into Public Health England and their conflated death toll figures will induce them to come up with an answer.

There are legitimate fears of a second wave of the virus during the winter. What we know already is that flu and seasonal colds are a common feature of the colder months, and perhaps experience informs us that viruses often go round with large gatherings of new people that characterise the start of the academic year – Freshers’ Week being a prime example. How should we respond? Primarily, with calmness and common sense. Regular hand washing is never a bad idea, nor is self-isolation if you display symptoms. What will be tragic is if there is complete panic and impulsive decisions that have devastating long-term effects. The government must ensure testing is robust and accurate, because it will be all too easy to continue to conflate numbers and guilt people into compliance, whilst simultaneously suggesting that they are selfish.

Those most at risk from the virus can continue to shield at home if they are still fearful. The rest of us should be encouraging those who are healthy to get back to a sense of normality as quickly as possible, and not allowing health and safety precautions to be an obtrusive and oppressive presence in our lives. The British people must be allowed to feel comfortable and safe doing all of the things we are allowed to enjoy again. For many, this does not include wearing a face mask around Waitrose or M&S.


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