Why on earth aren’t English politicians wearing face masks?

Photo opportunities should be a perfect moment to remind the public of the safety benefits of masks. 

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A question to which, I should confess at the outset, I do not know the answer: why in the name of all that is holy are Westminster politicians apparently refusing to wear face masks?

At time of writing, a Google Images search for “Boris Johnson mask” brings up literally dozens of images you can print out and cover your face with if you wish, for some reason, to attend a fancy dress party dressed as Boris Johnson; the odd social media post in which he’s been photoshopped to look like Bane from Batman; and literally no photograph of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and owner of the world’s most recognisable hair, with a potentially life-saving bit of cloth covering the lower half of his face. Searches of Getty Images for “UK, politician, mask”, meanwhile, provide multiple shots of Nicola Sturgeon and Michael Barnier on his way to Downing Street, but remarkably few of politicians actually based in London. 

This week, for reasons too depressing to bother with here, Labour leader Keir Starmer has been pictured pouring a pint, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak filmed bringing restaurant punters their meals; neither man did anything to reduce their chances of passing on a potentially fatal virus to anyone who happened to be near to them at the time. Oh, and I can find a sole picture of Health Secretary Matt Hancock wearing a face mask, but he was literally in a hospital undergoing a procedure at the time. Most of the time he doesn’t bother. It’s impossible to prove a negative, but nonetheless, at a time when the public is being encouraged to wear masks to reduce the spread of Covid-19, and when government signals really matter, most senior Westminster politicians just aren’t doing it.

(Strangely unexpected counter-example: former foreign secretary and Tory leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt, in a tweet that carries the distinct subtext of “let’s have a look at what you could’ve won”.)

So why are they not doing this remarkably easy thing? Some theories. 

a. A fish rots from the head. Just as the public respond to government signals, ministers respond to prime ministerial ones. Johnson isn’t bothering, so perhaps his underlings think that means they shouldn’t either, or fear that doing so while their glorious leader doesn’t would look like an implicit criticism.

This does not, however, explain the behaviour of Starmer, who stands to benefit from repeatedly reminding the electorate of quite what an irresponsible person Johnson is. It also just switches the question to “why isn’t Boris Johnson wearing a mask” rather than actually answering it. (My guess at a response to that question, incidentally, would be, “because he’s already had the virus, and has limited awareness that there are people in the world besides himself”.)

So perhaps the answer is:

b. Fame (fame) lets him loose, hard to swallow. The point of photo-ops is to get your mug in the paper, and relatively few politicians have mugs that would remain recognisable to anyone but a tiny minority of political obsessives if they were covered up with a piece of cloth. This perhaps explains the choice made by Starmer, who’s not been in post very long and who will still be unknown to a fair chunk of the electorate.

This carries the opposite problem of theory (a), however, in that one of the extremely small number of politicians who would remain easily and nearly universally recognisable with a mask on is Johnson, and he isn’t wearing one. So that leaves us with:

c. Masculinity is so fragile. Look, wearing a face mask just makes me feel silly. It makes me worry that I won’t be able to breathe even though I can absolutely, definitely breathe. I don’t wanna.

Science doesn’t care about your feelings, though, and the evidence is piling up that wearing a face mask means at least some reduction in your chances of contracting Covid-19, and a rather bigger one on your chances of spreading it to others. More to the point, official government advice is currently that you should wear a face covering “at all times on public transport or when attending a hospital as a visitor or outpatient”, and ideally whenever else you find yourself in enclosed public spaces in which social distancing is not possible. 

Photo-ops such as Sunak’s baffling turn as a waiter yesterday provide an ideal opportunity to remind the public of this, and to normalise the wearing of masks in public spaces – something that many people still find uncomfortable. Almost everything about how we respond to this pandemic is difficult. Wearing a face mask, by contrast, is incredibly easy.

So why on earth aren’t they doing it?

Jonn Elledge is a freelance journalist, formerly assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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