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Why wear a mask?

On 8 August, the newest policy on face masks and face coverings came into place signifying another attempt by the UK government to control the Coronavirus pandemic. Despite varying policies across the UK in regard to the Coronavirus pandemic, the wearing of a mask has become one of the more uniform across the four nations. 

The policy on masks in England saw a large period of time with very little development, with masks on public transport made compulsory on 15 June. It was not until over a month later on 14 July that the public were instructed to wear face masks in shops and supermarkets. This policy did not actually come into force until 10 days after the announcement.

In England going to museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship are now all activities that require wearing a face covering. Some people remain exempt from the policy such as children, those with disabilities, anyone for whom wearing a face covering would cause severe distress and those who assist someone reliant upon lip reading.

Using a face mask is known to be a significant barrier to the transmission of Covid-19. The highly infectious illness spreads primarily through respiratory droplets that come out through coughing, sneezing and even breathing. By covering their nose and mouth, individuals are greater protected from infecting others as well as catching the virus.

Using a face mask is known to be a significant barrier to the transmission of Covid-19

The wearing of masks is often described through the phrase “My mask protects you; your masks protects me”. While masks do provide protection to wearers, to many wearing a face covering represents the community protecting each other from the virus. 

The virus has an incubation period of between two to eleven days, with people on average not showing the initial symptoms until day five. As well as this, there are asymptomatic carriers of the virus. This means that people could unknowingly go out as carriers of the virus and spread it after months of sustained efforts to get it under control globally.  

Multiple case studies of infected people wearing face masks have found that an infected person wearing a mask lowers transmission of Covid-19. From multiple cases such as  a man who flew from China to Canada and two hair stylists in Missouri, the effectiveness of masks has been proven to prevent health people from catching the virus. The wearing of a mask in public can be seen as an adaption to the pandemic that acts effectively. Compared to other pandemic control measures, such as lockdowns and social distancing, it is one with minimal restriction on normal life 

Due to this knowledge about the effectiveness of masks, many have criticised the UK government for being too slow in developing a strict policy on masks. With the delay on the release of a track and trace app announced on 19 June, many have questioned why a strict policy wasn’t developed. The use of face masks could have been a successful way to protect communities whilst the new app was beginning to be developed and to slow the spread as the economy reopened.

Many have criticised the UK government for being too slow in developing a strict policy on masks

Many believe that the delay in policy from the government was influenced by the lack of provisions for the healthcare system. The government has been revealed to have failed to gain enough PPE for NHS and other key workers during the height of the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, high grade N95 respirator masks and surgical masks were in short supply. It has also been revealed that 50 million masks purchased by the government have been deemed unusable. 

Pushing the public to go out to get high grade medical masks could have worsened the public health crisis and left NHS workers without protection in high exposure situations. Especially with the stock-piling behaviour at the start of the pandemic, the panic buying of masks could have once again strained provisions across the country. This could have put healthcare workers and the most vulnerable to the disease at risk. 

However, the slow introduction of other measures by the UK government in comparison to their European counterparts suggests to many that this is just another example of government failure. From the closure of schools, national lockdowns, the abandoning of track and trace to mask wearing policy, the UK can be seen to have lagged behind policies implemented on the continent. Many view this as being the reason that the UK has the highest death rate in Europe.

Policy on face coverings across Europe did remain varied. Eastern European nations such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia introduced masks as early as 15 March. Up to 80% of people reported wearing a mask in the previous pandemic hotspots of Italy and Spain. In Germany masks are required to be worn by both teacher and students. Some Nordic nations don’t have any policy on masks, and they remain infrequently worn but infection rates remain low. 

In a survey at the end of June about the frequency of masks worn in the UK, 50.5% responded that they did not wear a mask at all. The impact of the newly introduced restrictions on both attitudes and the spread of the virus will take time to be revealed. However, only an estimated 25% of the population were wearing masks before 24 July.

A survey found that 50.5% of people in the UK did not wear a mask at all

Some believe that Brits, particularly English people, refuse to wear masks in an attempt to not look hysterical. The New York Times’ piece on mask wearing behaviour the UK quoted a Newcastle man who said that “Brits would rather be sick than embarrassed”. Another suggestion is that the lack of mask wearing by UK politicians, including the Prime Minister, has conveyed a message to citizens that masks were optional and unnecessary.  

Companies such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda have said they won’t be challenging customers who enter stores without their nose and mouth covered. This could also act as a barrier to significant change in attitudes, with people not seeing any consequence for failure to follow public policy. This is intended to protect staff from abuse as well as customers from invasive questions about their mask wearing status. 

Mask advocates have highlighted the temporary wearing of a mask for a short period of time is a small task compared to those performed by health care workers, carers and key workers every day. The sacrifice of life by health care has been heartbreakingly high. To many, the refusal to wear a mask is a snub to their contributions to keep the sick alive at extreme personal detriment. 

To families who have lost loved ones, both to the virus and other reasons, the refusal of a measure is equally painful. Many have been unable to attend funerals or forced to wear masks at services that can be attended. Those in the high-risk group along with their families still have to remain cautious as the world reopens. For many the quicker the pandemic clears up the easier life will get, with a mask wearing a way to speed the process up.

Requiring citizens to wear a mask has proved controversial in relation to rights. Many view the state ordering individuals to wear an item, regardless of its relation to public health, as a denial of their individual liberty and freedom of choice. Much like arguments made by the anti-vaccination movement, there is a belief by some that the state is beginning on a slippery slope towards authoritarianism and state control of our bodies.

Many view the state ordering individuals to wear an item, regardless of its relation to public health, as a denial of their individual liberty and freedom of choice

In the US this is the key argument by those opposed to having to wear masks, referring to them as being like muzzles. The lack of a national policy in the US can be tied to its federal political system. This makes nationwide policy hard to implement as state governors could argue it is beyond Congress’ jurisdiction.

There is also a potential limitation by the fact that Republicans, a party that highly advocates for the First Amendment and individual liberty, control both the senate and White House. As well as this, Trump’s previous recommendation of unapproved medication to tackle Covid-19 has demonstrated that public health is not a policy area he understands. 

In the UK some have similar concerns about civil liberties such as Conservative MP Desmond Swayne. With some leaders such as Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, using Covid-19 to gain power for themselves questions about how the crisis could be used by political figures. Anti-mask advocates view themselves as rebelling against tyranny and protecting their individual freedoms.

Controversial as masks have become, they are equally proven to be a successful way to tackle the current global pandemic. The wearing of masks could help to prevent further spikes and help to sustain the easing of lockdown. 

The impact of the 2003 SARS outbreak saw a cultural shift in mask wearing in Eastern Asia. Perhaps this cultural shift will eventually come to the UK and the rest of the world with time, regardless of the delay of implementation. As life progresses and people adapt to the new normal, maybe more will do whatever is necessary to stop a second wave and more national lockdowns. 

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