Mask wearing is a matter of personal choice

According to the Westminster government, yes. At 5pm yesterday the Prime Minister confirmed that in England mask wearing would no longer be compulsory from July 19 onwards.

Keir Starmer attempted a voice of reason tone: Boris Johnson’s lockdown ending plans are too much at once. No social distancing, no mask wearing, nightclubs reopening. It should be a more cautious easing in.

Elsewhere, there were headlines blaring alarm at the ending of compulsory face coverings. “Johnson told lifting public transport mask wearing would be ‘gross act of negligence'” ran one such.

Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, tweeted that the new health minister’s attitude is “frightening”. Sajid Javid, he tweeted, “doesn’t realise that those who do best for health, also do best for the economy”.

At yesterday’s Downing Street announcement, Boris Johnson was not long after saying ditching the masks is fine when his chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, chipped in to offer his own three part guide to when to wear a face covering, given “the epidemic is significant and rising”.

Professor Whitty’s rule of thumb, in case it’s useful, is to wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces; to make someone else feel comfortable; or when asked to do so by an authority.

Politicians reassuring the public that ending mask wearing is fine; scientists criticising those same politicians; medical experts advising the use of masks; opposition politicians – as is their purpose – giving different views.

In Scotland we have it relatively easy, given that the Scottish Government has given little hint of when we might be permitted to go bare faced. When our restrictions here end on August 9 it is expected that we will still be required to wear masks on public transport or in shops.

Will people be willing to do so, given England has scrapped masks, is another question.

Face coverings have been controversial throughout the pandemic. As our liberties have contracted and expanded, mask wearing has become a microcosm for the issues raised by coronavirus. Libertarians have used them as a focus of protest against government control of our behaviours.

Those keen to demonstrate a care and responsibility for others have used them as a symbol of community-mindedness.

It was interesting, early on in the mask debate, that the pro-social aspect of mask wearing was so strongly pushed, that line that masks protect others more than they protect the wearer.

Retailers feeling the covid pinch have gone big on selling masks while advertisers have created an array of manufactured mask issues in order to flog more stuff. Mask breath? Here’s a mouth spray. Mascne? Here’s some face cream. You can’t blame them – anything to get the tills ka-chinging. Am I alone in having masks for “best” and masks for everyday wear?

Now that masks are becoming a personal choice in England, they have become a sort of ideogram of public distrust in the ruling party. It is very difficult to take Boris Johnson’s health and safety advice seriously because of the relentless, persistent balls-up that constitutes his government.

The message is lost in the reputation of the messenger. It is extremely difficult to nod along to a man telling you that it’s safe to go maskless on public transport when it’s highly unlikely that man, or any of his circle, will themselves be crushing on to the subway or stuck in a train carriage with truculent drunks who refuse to cover their faces. Essentially, men to whom it doesn’t materially matter.

Yesterday there was utter fury expressed on social media that mask wearing should end and encouragement for the Scottish Government to remain steady with its own stance on the matter here.

At this stage, the choice to wear a mask or not is unlikely to come down to a forensic look at the science. It’s about confusion at the top; real and understandable feelings of fear; anxiety about what living with the virus means; a desire to protect those we love and those in our communities.

There’s time between now and July 19 for a u-turn on the mask issue. Let no one be surprised if Mr Johnson changes his mind. For certain, though, is that mandated or not, masks will be with us for some time to come.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992