New legislation is to be brought in which will make face masks mandatory in shops across England, but it won’t come in to force until Friday 24 July. After mounting pressure and mixed messaging Boris Johnson has finally succumbed to the inevitable, bringing England in line with Scotland and other major European nations like Spain, Italy and Germany.
The decision comes after a reported increase in the use of face coverings by people in England, Scotland and Wales. More than 50% of adults surveyed by the Office for National Statistics in the first week of July said they used a covering while outside their home. These figures will be reassuring to the Prime Minister who has described wearing masks as “extra insurance” against the coronavirus. Up until now Britons have been comparatively slow to embrace mask wearing. Countries like Spain, Italy and Germany have already made it compulsory to wear face coverings inside shops, and more broadly they also have a higher proportion of adults wearing face coverings in public spaces: 86% in Spain, 83% in Italy 65% in Germany.
Johnson himself wore a mask for the first time in public last week. On Monday, during a visit to the London ambulance service, he said: “I do think that in shops it is very important to wear a face covering”. However, the government has been accused of mixed messaging regarding the importance of wearing a face mask with contradicting messages coming from both Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove – no surprise there! Only 24 hours before Johnson first appeared wearing a face mask, the Chancellor was seen without a face covering as he posed with diners in Wagamama; on Sunday, Gove told Andrew Marr that he did not favour making masks mandatory.
The way in which the government have notified the public of this significant change all seems very on brand doesn’t it. The slow reaction, mixed messaging and generally incoherent strategy has demonstrated quite well their indecision during this pandemic. Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, described the government’s actions as “slow and muddled”.
Although the decision to make face coverings mandatory will be welcomed by scientists and health officials it has faced criticism by some. For a particular section of society – mainly right-wingers – this decision is just one step too far. These Brexit/Trump types exclaim that the state has absolutely no business telling them what they should and shouldn’t wear, that lockdown was bad enough but this is nothing less than an infringement on their civil liberties.
Ironically, these same types call anyone who disagrees with them “lefty snowflakes”. You know, the same types who have spent the last 4 years invoking the Blitz spirit but are now floundering at the prospect of putting a piece of cloth over their mouth.
Face masks are not a threat to your individual freedoms, they are simply a conscientious health precaution.
Rather than viewing face coverings as some sort of “muzzle”, consider them a well-mannered gesture which will now become common place. Ultimately, here lies the crux of the issue: just like social distancing, face masks are a precaution to protect those who are most vulnerable and is a step everyone can take in order to look out for each other – is that really too much to ask?