July 17, 2020

Let me say at the outset that I am not ‘anti-mask’. I accept there may be some highly exceptional circumstances in which it may be legitimate for a government to compel citizens to wear face masks in public spaces. And, in such a scenario, it would not be unreasonable to expect the public to co-operate.

But I am far from convinced that the law requiring shoppers in England to mask up, which comes into effect next week, is rational or justified.

There is no scientific consensus on the efficacy of masks in the battle to suppress Covid-19. Some experts believe they do more harm than good. Until very recently, the Government’s own medical advisers were telling us that masks were of little use.

The timing is questionable, too. Why impose such a law now when the curve has flattened? Why not earlier when the virus was peaking (and, so far as I recall, supermarkets and other essential stores that remained open were bustling)?

I know some will argue that the Government is trying to encourage people to hit the shops harder in an attempt to rejuvenate the economy, and the order to don masks is seen as a way of assuaging the health fears of prospective shoppers. But I suspect that the order may in many cases have the opposite effect. There will almost certainly be a sizeable number who, puzzled and irritated by the measure, will simply choose to stay at home.

Defenders of the Government’s decision have drawn parallels with the requirement to wear seat belts in motor vehicles. But the comparison is weak. There is compelling evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of seat belts in saving lives. By contrast, the jury remains out on face masks. Moreover, the wearing of seat belts does not fundamentally alter the nature of our society or our relations with each other as human beings. I have seen, where I live, the effects of masks — on buses, on the street and in shops. They, for want of a better term, sterilise the atmosphere. The friendly smiles, the subtle expressions, the small-talk, the banter: all suppressed behind a strip of cloth.

Does the Government have an exit strategy on masks? With a vaccine potentially a long way off, will we be expected to cover up indefinitely? Is that an outcome that a majority of citizens are willing to countenance? Can we believe ministers when they say the law won’t be extended to include other locations, such as workplaces?

And what happens when the next flu epidemic strikes? How could the Government credibly refuse to impose an identical order to cover up? Again, is that something we will readily accept? Furthermore, should consistency not demand that we don masks every winter in future to help prevent some of the average 17,000 flu deaths that occur annually in England (in spite of there being a vaccine)? If not, why not? It is true that flu and Covid-19 are different viruses, but both are contagious respiratory illnesses which are transmitted in similar ways, so any marked discrepancy in the method of response would surely be illogical, would it not? Or is it perhaps just a numbers game? In which case, what is the threshold for imposing compulsory masks? Twenty thousand deaths? Thirty thousand? Forty?

Sadly, though perhaps unsurprisingly, to even raise these questions is to elicit a furious response from a section of society – particularly the Twittersphere – that appears slavishly compliant in its support for the Government’s position. Even those who challenge the wisdom and competence of Boris Johnson and his cabinet on virtually every other policy decision have suddenly become the embodiment of submissiveness over this new law.

Dare to challenge it, and you will find yourself accused of harbouring some wicked desire to see vulnerable people killed or ‘ignoring the science’ or being some kind of extreme libertarian. Rarely will your opponents put forward a considered and cogent response to your objections. Instead, they will use it as an opportunity to signal their own virtue. They support the compulsory wearing of masks, so they are by definition inherently better human beings. Hard evidence and facts can go whistle.

Every death from Covid-19 is a tragedy, but many seem to have lost sight of the fact that the vast majority who contract the virus will suffer either mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Only in a minority are symptoms more serious, and in an even smaller minority fatal. Of course we must protect the genuinely vulnerable, an area where the Government has unquestionably fallen short. But the mentality that appears to have been adopted by some — that the virus presents a serious threat to the whole of humanity — is not serving us well. It is making us risk averse, generating needless panic and slowly recasting our social relations with each other. Perhaps permanently.

The law on masks is but the latest example of the mission creep that has marked the Government’s whole approach to the pandemic. The original justification for the lockdown — that it was necessary to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed — appears to have been lost in the mists of time. Those of us who warned from the beginning that the curtailment of our civil liberties might not end up being the temporary measure it was intended to be, and that we ought to be on our guard against ever-tightening restrictions, have, it seems, been vindicated.

Some would prefer there to be no debate at all — let alone any dissent —on all of these questions. In fact, the debate is only just beginning.