When it comes to masks, we should trust the public, not politicians

To mask or not to mask? That is the question vexing Britain as we move towards “Freedom Day” on July 19. Having welcomed the end to restrictions, I’m now worried that every supermarket trip is about to become a minefield of social etiquette. I don’t want to be regarded as a thug if I gratefully jettison the crumpled old masks spreading bacteria in my pockets. But neither do I want to project smug self-righteousness, in a society which already has quite enough virtue signalling. 

For the British who are famously attuned to queue-jumping and other social nuances, the government’s decision to make mask-wearing a matter of personal responsibility leaves nowhere to hide. Our stance will be written all over our faces — literally. Unlike in America, where restrictions have been eased without much fuss, we Brits will note each other’s mask decisions as quickly and critically as we size up someone’s accent. My own family bought masks early in the pandemic, and I still remember being glared at on our local high street as if I was a bank robber.

Since then, their widespread adoption has been remarkable and it’s helped to speed up reopening. One estimate put the value of mask-wearing at $56 a day in terms of GDP saved. So it’s a bit silly to claim a bare face as the ultimate symbol of liberty. On the other hand, it’s outrageous to portray the suggestion that we must learn to live with Covid as extreme, or “right-wing”. I hate the way my face covering steams up my sunglasses, but I didn’t support Donald Trump. I’d like to be able to talk to my elderly aunt without half my face shrouded. That’s not political. 

What’s really infuriating is scientists who warn that leaving it up to us is as dangerous as lifting the speed limit on the motorway. If the past 16 months have shown us anything, it is that the public have been unbelievably restrained, making enormous sacrifices to protect each other. It is politicians and their advisers who have flagrantly broken the rules they imposed on the rest of us.

We have been the grown-ups: we don’t need to be infantilised any more. Two-thirds of Britons polled by YouGov say they will continue to wear masks after restrictions end. Given that the other third is probably already wearing them halfway down their chin, or dangling from one ear, this suggests that rules aren’t terribly relevant.

As a parent of one of the 279,000 school children in England sent home yet again to isolate last week, I feel it’s time to regain our sense of proportion. A virus from which few children suffer any serious symptoms has been allowed to destroy education, social development and mental health. The disgraceful neglect of children and students makes the contradictions in government policy all the more irritating. While 60,000 maskless fans were let into Wembley Stadium to watch the euros, government guidance was still stipulating that worshippers could not pray in groups larger than 30, even outside. Football is truly the national religion. 

Of course there are risks. Combating every new Covid variant is a game of Whack-a-mole. The UK is hoping, like Spain, that the rise in the Delta variant among younger and mostly unvaccinated people will not have a great impact on hospitalisations or deaths. In largely vaccinated populations, none of the new variants has represented anything like the kind of public health threat that the original one did. There is no better time to open up than now, when nine in 10 adults have Covid antibodies, and the weather is fine enough to socialise outdoors. The government already postponed freedom by a month to vaccinate more people as the Delta variant spread.

Perhaps fearing their imminent loss of airtime, some medical experts have now switched tack to warn about the dangers of Long Covid. The effects are nasty, though the young seem to be less badly affected than older people who are more likely to have been vaccinated. But experts miss the point that we are a democracy. Parliament gave draconian powers to government last March only as a temporary measure. Emergency measures cannot be justified when there is no emergency.

In a healthy democracy, ministers would be challenged every day to persuade us of the need to continue restrictions, not attacked as if any deviation from them was now abnormal. The Zero Covid coalition, run by the MP Diane Abbott and the Morning Star, claims that it’s possible to eradicate Covid from the UK and urges us to emulate Australia and Taiwan. But it’s far too late to copy Taiwan, and Australia is discovering the consequences of trying to seal your country off from the world.

The UK must rely on the huge success of its vaccine rollout to get us back to something like normal. But there is one place where lifting restrictions might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While we can choose whether to go to a crowded cinema or pub, we can’t do the same on the train or bus. With offices struggling to overcome their staff’s fear of commuting, it would have been more sensible to keep masks compulsory on public transport.

On a crowded train or bus, I know I don’t want to make other people anxious. So while hating my mask, I will continue to don one out of respect for my fellow travellers. None of us know who is clinically vulnerable, who hasn’t been jabbed, who is afraid. By keeping my mask in my pocket, I am aligning myself with the only faction I wish to be part of: the majority who still subscribe to old-fashioned English politeness.

The writer, a former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, is a Harvard senior fellow


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