First Thoughts: Wearing face masks in the summer, a nation of shoppers and the return of the West Indies

Only 36 per cent of Britons wear masks in public places, against 90 per cent in Singapore, 85 in Italy, 79 in France, and 65 in Germany.

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I don’t like wearing a face mask. My glasses steam up and my nose itches. This reluctance to cover up is apparently shared by most Britons. According to YouGov polls, only 36 per cent of us wear masks in public places, against 90 per cent in Singapore, 85 per cent in Italy, 79 per cent in France, 65 per cent in Germany and, perhaps because Americans were brought up on the Lone Ranger films, 73 per cent in the US.

Numerous theories try to explain such differences: authoritarian regimes in Asia, social solidarity in Continental Europe, for example. The real reason, I suspect, is more mundane. The British summer is short and fickle. We want to feel free from bodily coverings while it lasts. Wearing a mask on a fine July morning feels like wearing boots in the bath. This would explain why, across Scandinavia, where summers are even shorter, fewer than 10 per cent wear masks.

Now, on Boris Johnson’s orders, we must all wear masks in shops in England, though how strictly the rule will be observed and enforced is another matter. If my theory is right, the population will be keener to cover up once the clocks go back.

A nation of shoppers

All ministers really care about is the effect of masks on our shopping habits. Since we export little and spend frugally on public goods, the British economy depends to an unusual extent on household consumption. It accounts for two-thirds of national income against barely half in Germany, France and Switzerland. Some may welcome an end to spending on throwaway consumer goods. But Johnson would need to build an awful lot of bridges to compensate. We are not so much a nation of shopkeepers, as Napoleon is supposed to have said, more a nation of shoppers.

Global handouts

The US also depends heavily on the domestic consumer for economic growth, which is why Donald Trump and Congress agreed on “stimulus payments” for most Americans. Their reach is surprisingly wide. One young Briton, born, schooled and still resident here, has just received £900 from the US government, I hear. He has US citizenship through an American parent, but has never himself lived or worked there. Even under Trump, the US, it seems, hasn’t entirely abdicated its role as the engine of the global economy.

Closing ranks

Once newspapers abused each other; now, in harsher times, they cling together. In advance of the BBC’s series on Rupert Murdoch, the Times and Sunday Times owner, the Mail on Sunday complains that the documentary features the former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson and the actor Hugh Grant talking about how Murdoch’s journalists hacked phones. The BBC “fails to mention or glosses over” Grant’s “criminal record” (he was convicted of “lewd conduct” with a sex worker in the US in 1995) and Watson’s role in distinguished figures being falsely investigated for child sex abuse. How touching to see a newspaper protecting the good name of its rival’s octogenarian proprietor.

A calm victory

The Test match that just ended in a West Indian victory illustrates the absurdity of racial stereotypes. For years, Caribbean cricketers were described as unfocused, undisciplined, sloppy in the field, prone to fall apart in a crisis. The English radio broadcaster Henry Blofeld said of one side in the late Sixties that they could not, when things went wrong, “regroup mentally”. The stereotypes changed when, with several very quick bowlers, the West Indies dominated the game for a decade or more: the lovably unpredictable cricketers became thugs playing, as one commentator put it, a game “founded on vengeance and violence”. But the old ones eventually crept back.

Now look at how England played in Southampton. In the first innings, they couldn’t regroup mentally when they lost wickets to bowling at a gentle medium pace. In the second, their batting collapsed from a position of strength. Their fielding was so sloppy that they missed several catches and potential run-outs. Meanwhile, the West Indies, focused and disciplined, moved calmly to victory. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 17 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine

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