Here’s the thing. Nobody’s wearing masks.
Well, not nobody, exactly, but mask-wearers are definitely the exception rather than the rule in the UK.
Shop staff don’t wear masks. Shop customers don’t wear masks. Delivery drivers going from house to house to house placing parcels into people’s hands don’t wear masks. My neighbour who is an actual nurse in a hospital socialises with other neighbours without wearing a mask. Politicians don’t wear masks. Here’s a parliamentary session on 9 July:
The Chancellor – the man in charge of the economy – is very keen to get the restaurant sector up and running again. As a publicity stunt, he did a shift waiting on tables at a newly reopened restaurant, also maskless:
My brother went to a restaurant the day after they reopened and he reported to me that there were social distancing measures in place and the waiting staff did wear masks – which was all well and good, except that every time his waitress came to the table she pulled her mask down, leaned over the table and shouted into their faces in order to communicate better.
When I started writing this, my take was “Why are we so irresponsible? Masks may not be a magic bullet but there is evidence that they help prevent transmission of the virus. People in other countries are wearing them. What’s wrong with us in the UK?”
I was going to list various things that don’t explain the lack of mask-wearing. For example, it isn’t about politics, as it is in the US. Here, a person’s decision to wear a mask or not says nothing about their voting habits, and there’s nobody waving placards claiming that masks are a violation of our rights.
It’s also not a major social issue here: there isn’t a war between those who wear masks and those who don’t. Those who don’t wear them don’t bat an eyelid at those who do, and those who do go quietly about their business without making judgmental comments about those who don’t.
Nor, for once, can it be dismissed as a case of Brits being a law unto themselves. London is populated by a kaleidoscope of nationalities, and mask-wearing is not prevalent among any of them. Even the people from countries that have been absolutely battered by the virus and where it would be unthinkable to venture out maskless aren’t wearing them here.
So, I was going to ask, what does account for our irresponsibility? I was going to offer up my best guess, which was simply inertia. People aren’t wearing masks because they haven’t been told to. People won’t do anything that requires even a modicum of additional effort unless they are told to, either directly, by rules, or indirectly, in the form of societal pressure.
But I may have been asking the wrong question again. (It happens sometimes. You may remember this post, in which I asked the wrong question about eradication of diseases).
Maybe I shouldn’t be asking why we’re so irresponsible, because maybe – just maybe – it’s not necessarily irresponsible, at least not in every situation. Maybe the question should be: “Should we be wearing masks?”
Don’t shout at me yet. Please listen to this:
The World Health Organization’s current advice is that “governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments”. Hear it from the horse’s mouth below:
The UK government follows this up to a point. Masks or face coverings were recently made mandatory on public transport (except in Wales, where they are recommended but not mandatory).
Face coverings are not currently mandatory in shops (except in Scotland). There is talk of making them mandatory in shops, although the Health Secretary, Michael Gove, is inclined to leave it to people’s judgment. “It is basic good manners,” he says. “I trust people’s good sense”:
However, the WHO also cautions that “masks are not a replacement for physical distancing, hand hygiene and other public health measures. Masks are only of benefit as part of a comprehensive approach.”
And this, perhaps, is the most important point.
The UK government may have been a bit lukewarm over masks, but maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to accuse them of wilful neglect. It seems to have been a conscious decision to prioritise other measures, in light of the fact that wearing a mask can make you feel invincible and thus inclined to neglect other measures, such as handwashing and social distancing.
The current government guidance for food businesses makes this fairly explicit:
“The evidence of the benefit of using a face covering to protect others is weak and the effect is likely to be small, therefore face coverings are not a replacement for the other ways of managing risk, including minimising time spent in contact, using fixed teams and partnering for close-up work, and increasing hand and surface washing … However, customers and workers who want to wear a face covering should be allowed to do so.”
So should we be wearing masks? The answer, it seems, is a heavily qualified “yes”. If we do wear them, we should remember that they don’t make us invincible. And if we don’t wear them, we should certainly ramp up the handwashing and social distancing to compensate.