Vaccinations have made people more confident to sit in enclosed spaces without masks, Grant Shapps has said, prompting scientists to warn that such messages risked complacency, and that mask use was vital in limiting the spread of Covid.
Speaking at a packed fringe event about the rail industry at the Conservative party conference, where many people in the room did not have a face covering, the transport secretary noted the return of confidence of people to travel.
“It is the case that coming out of the pandemic, everyone needs to make that first journey – you felt, actually, that wasn’t so bad,” Shapps said. “You look at us in this room. Three months ago it would have been unimaginable for us to be sat in this room, in reasonably close proximity, [without] face coverings.”
Saying that anyone still unvaccinated without a medical reason was “mad”, Shapps said the extent of vaccination meant there was “a feeling of safety coming back, because people will know they’re jabbed, and everyone else is jabbed”.
Asked at the event in Manchester whether it was a good thing that so many people without masks were in the room, Shapps said: “I don’t think I said I was pleased. I was simply making the comparison that three months ago this would have been impossible, if we hadn’t come to the end of the programme of vaccination. And it is undoubtedly a good thing that society is able to open up.”
However, some scientists said it was important that the messaging on masks was not undermined. Dr Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary, University of London, said it was clearly established that people who were vaccinated could get infected and transmit Covid, and should wear masks in crowded places.
She said: “Infection rates in England currently are very high, so the risk of ‘superspreading’ in indoor crowded places is also very high. And government officials not wearing masks in such environments undermines their own public messaging that advises others to do so, and further erodes public trust, which is critical in the midst of what is a crisis, where we’re having an NHS that’s already struggling and 1,000 deaths per week and it’s not even winter yet.”
Trish Greenhalgh, a GP and professor of primary care health at the University of Oxford, said while Covid vaccines had been a “game-changer” for the pandemic, vaccinated people should still wear masks at indoor events.
“People who are fully vaccinated can still transmit the virus and still catch it,” she said. “The more people in the room, the more chance that someone is exhaling the virus even when they’re vaccinated, but especially if they aren’t.”
She urged people to take a “belt and braces” approach, adding: “The combination of masks and vaccines gives vastly more protection than either one alone.”