Why did the UK government change its position on face masks?

The shift in policy may owe more to public opinion than any deeper ideological struggle. 

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Face masks are to be made mandatory in shops and supermarkets in England, with shoppers facing a £100 fine if they do not wear one, Matt Hancock is set to confirm later today.

The new rules, extending the current requirement for masks to be worn on public transport in England, come into effect from 24 July for everyone except children under 11 and people with certain health conditions. This follows Scotland, where face coverings have been mandatory in shops since last week. There is no change in Northern Ireland, where face masks are mandatory on public transport, and they are to become mandatory on public transport in Wales from 27 July.

It has been quite the journey for the humble face mask in recent months. In the early days of the pandemic, the government insisted there was no, or weak, evidence that masks worked, while privately scrambling to source enough of them for health and social care workers. This was followed by their introduction as mandatory on public transport but in no other settings, with Michael Gove remarking at the weekend that wearing face coverings in shops was “basic good manners” but not an appropriate area for legislation.

This latest development on masks tells us quite a lot about the government’s approach to the Covid-19 crisis, but not necessarily in the way you might think. It certainly is ripe for an analysis of the noble struggle between Boris Johnson’s libertarian instincts and his commitment to protecting people from the virus following his own brush with death. And that does seem to be a part of it, but it isn’t the whole picture.

Since shifting its message from “stay at home” to “stay alert”, the government has hoped to redistribute the burden of responsibility away from government rules and towards individual judgement. It is a more comfortable position for ministers in both practical and ideological terms: a more comfortable balance between state control and individual responsibility, a more suitable approach for the complexities of this stage of lockdown easing, and, ministers may hope, a small shift towards collective, rather than government, responsibility for the next stage of the pandemic.

But we don’t know if ministers actively debated introducing compulsory face masks in shops, before deciding against and U-turning in advance of today’s announcement. I have heard it suggested that simply “no decision was made”. It exemplifies the pitfalls of an instinctively laissez-faire approach, or, more precisely, the pitfalls of governance by a man who asked in a recent meeting “who is responsible for implementing this?”, only to be told, “you, Prime Minister”. As many a French philosopher will tell you, not choosing is, in itself, a choice.

We know that this government receives near-daily polling, and that new public polling by YouGov indicates strong public support for masks and a plurality in favour of them being made compulsory in shops. That, combined with increasing pressure from journalists over what seems a policy with few downsides, may explain the shift more than any deep ideological struggle. Yes, the government is instinctively libertarian and, presumably, uncomfortable with the level of state interference required by the pandemic.

But this volte-face is perhaps more indicative of another tendency within the government: to move slowly, to fail to decide, and to be more swayed by public opinion than ideology.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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