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Boris Johnson’s new policy on masks prioritises simplicity over safety

The government has needlessly abandoned one of the most basic and effective public health measures. 

By Sarah Manavis

As mask-wearing was becoming the norm last summer, an infographic went viral on Instagram. It demonstrated the risk of Covid-19 transmission when one person was infected and another wasn’t – depending on mask use. When neither individual wore a mask, the graphic showed transmission was almost a certainty. When the healthy person wore one, transmission was quite likely if the infected person went without. The only way to make the risk effectively nonexistent, the graphic showed, was for both parties to wear some form of face covering.

This has been the common message on masks for nearly a year: that we don’t only wear them to protect ourselves, but also to protect others. We have known for months that mask-wearing by all parties – particularly indoors, where airborne transmission is most likely – can make transmission near-impossible, especially when combined with good ventilation. It is one of the most effective things individuals can do, and it doesn’t require specialist equipment. A study published in September 2020 by researchers at the University of Edinburgh found masks can block 99.9 per cent of Covid-linked droplets.

As a public health measure it’s cheap and unobtrusive in short stints such as sitting on a bus or shopping at the supermarket. So many were surprised when Boris Johnson announced on 5 July that, if reopening goes ahead in England on 19 July, mask-wearing and social distancing will become a personal choice. In the same press conference, the chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance warned that cases are doubling roughly every nine days.

Mask-wearing has become intensely politicised, perhaps more so than any other public health measure since the start of the pandemic. It is the beloved talking point among Covid sceptics and deniers, who believe the government wants us “yoked” or “muzzled” for no reason beyond control. The decision to make masks optional is political, too.

And it is yet another example of the government choosing what is optically the simplest policy, rather than what is safe – only this time with no apparent electoral or economic benefit. Throughout the pandemic, the government has pushed the message that the Covid-19 experience is a binary: you either feel a bit feverish for a week, or you end up in hospital and maybe die. The argument for dropping the mask mandate follows this same logic. The vulnerable are already protected by the vaccine roll-out and the young people still waiting for their second jab won’t become seriously ill. Deaths and hospitalisations remain low despite high case numbers, so why not allow people to experience their pre-2020 lives this summer? 

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The problem is that this has never been the reality of catching Covid-19. The mask debate is more complicated than the government acknowledges.

In terms of health, it is not true that the vulnerable are all protected. Some people with blood cancer have no Covid antibodies even after two jabs. Some people are so immunocompromised they can’t be vaccinated at all, meaning high prevalence of the virus limits their ability to go about their lives safely. Even for those who don’t already suffer from any serious health issues, there is the risk of long Covid, a form of post-viral fatigue that affects people in all age groups, and continues to have extreme effects post-vaccination. Masks don’t just limit transmission, they also lower the viral load we breathe in, which some evidence suggests can reduce the severity of resulting illness.

But it’s not just health that is threatened by high case numbers. Social factors, such as the lack of adequate sick pay, make “living with the virus” an unrealistic option for those in precarious work. What is a gig economy worker supposed to do if they’re cut off from any source of income for nearly half the month after being forced to isolate when they get sick? How is someone who suffers from long Covid – even in a white collar job – supposed to earn when they can barely move from their bed?

Mask-wearing does not solve these problems outright, but reducing transmission makes an enormous difference – both by mitigating the number of people suffering from the long-term health impacts of Covid-19, and by helping others avoid reliance on the government’s anaemic support system. And while some of the unvaccinated population may genuinely not care about any of these potential risks, until now those who did care could live largely risk-free because when they went to buy food or get a bus, almost everyone was wearing a mask. With high case numbers and significantly reduced levels of mask-wearing, even indoor spaces considered essential will no longer be safe.

The desperation to make our lives appear normal has been an apparent factor in many of the government’s Covid policies. Even schemes that proved risky, such as Eat Out To Help Out, were incredibly popular. But YouGov polling shows that 71 per cent of the public would rather keep the mask mandate in place on public transport.

Cases will continue to climb over the coming weeks until the adult population has been fully vaccinated, after which infection rates will begin to fall. Once we reach this point, we can be certain that life will be much safer for the unprotected than it is now. If second doses were sped up, it could even be sometime this summer. So why not maintain one of the most basic, affordable public health measures in order to keep people safe until then?

There is a valid question that opponents of the mask mandate raise: when does this all end? We cannot indefinitely continue with restrictions until we reach Covid zero – a scenario that realistically may never occur. Still, in the face of daily case rates of a level like those during the winter lockdown, many epidemiologists would argue the answer should be “not right now”. Relaxing Covid rules is a complex balancing act. But the government has once again opted to prioritise simplicity over the safety of millions – even when the latter is, for the first time in the pandemic, squarely in sight.

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust