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News Commentary: Banned From Shopping by the Mask Law?

January 13, 2021.

Kevan James.

The UK government’s latest lockdown, accompanied by more unremitting doom from the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has led to a new furore over major supermarket chains publicly announcing that they would be actively enforcing the law over face coverings. Conversely, up to now at least, most shops and stores have taken a relatively relaxed attitude towards customers not using them.

There have been some exceptions to this, a few isolated incidents here and there – comparatively speaking - in the period following the introduction of the ‘mask law’ however. These were not really a surprise given the somewhat confusing introduction of the law by the government.

Such confusion arose firstly due to over-enthusiastic security staff at store entrances interpreting at face value what had been published and broadcast on the subject of mandatory face coverings. The publicity had been emphasising that faces, meaning noses and mouths, must be covered by ‘something’, anything would do, and at all times inside every shop, store, bus, on trains, at railway stations and airports. And it was limited to just that – wear a face covering. Nothing else, just wear a face covering. The same message was posted on and in those same shops, stores and buses, on trains and everywhere else, again to the exclusion of stating anything otherwise.

This emphasis led to immediate conflict (as I predicted at the time elsewhere on the pages of KJM Today) between store staff, customers generally and, significantly, those who were medically exempt from wearing a face covering. Yet from the very start, a number of people were indeed made exempt from face coverings and for a number of quite valid reasons. But this was not communicated at all – at least to begin with. Following those conflicts, as isolated as they were (again, comparatively speaking), the signage began to change. The word’s ‘Unless Exempt’ were either added or made more prominent. So why weren’t they to start with? Or were they?

In fact, a document from the Cabinet Office did make clear to the major chains that exemptions were applicable. This is why most major stores did not make any strenuous efforts to enforce the mask law (with those exceptions already mentioned). The document was not made widely available but could in fact, be found online – if one hunted for it. What however, is still available on the government’s website otherwise, are those exemptions and this is where most people have been able to get their information from.

The Cabinet Office document reads as follows:

Why was this information not made more widely available and to everybody, at the time? And for that matter, why has it not been publicised more now, in January 2021? Why also, have members of the general public, most especially those who need to know, been obliged to hunt for it?

There are two possible answers. The first is the more unfortunate aspect to human nature and that is that there are people who will abuse anything if given the chance. There is little doubt – no doubt at all – that there are some who will claim exemption simply because they don’t want to wear a face covering and refuse to be told what to do by anybody, under any circumstances, anytime, ever. It is one of the darker aspects to humankind. The second possibility is that government thinking is to make life as difficult as possible and simply ensure that everybody complies regardless. This also is one of the less desirable aspects to ourselves, in that once people have gained power, it’s addictive nature means that more power must be acquired and the more that is, the less those with it want to let go of it.

Looking at the first, if one accepts that some people will be rebellious, sometimes just for the sake of it one does have something of an obligation to be ready for it and to deal with it. But this raises further questions, three and four if you like; the third is whatever method(s) one uses to quell rebellion, what will be the collateral damage – will the innocent be adversely affected?

Sadly, yes, they will. As I predicted in my earlier commentary, the inevitable result of the conflict between stores, the majority who comply, the rebellious and the innocent who genuinely can’t use a face covering has manifested itself in those genuine individuals being harassed and abused by another minority – those who eagerly lap up all forms of control and demand that everybody does the same no matter what the consequence. The fourth question is whether or not mandatory face coverings are really necessary at all.

This is a story all of itself and thus worthy of a separate article altogether but it does bring us back to the second question; that of power and the liking for it.

There is a well-established school of thought that says if one gives power to anybody (especially if it comes with a uniform and a hi-viz jacket) they will always, always, always abuse it. And by extension therefore, anybody over whom they have control. History shows conclusively that this is so. Mercifully however and by dint of a system that has, up to now at least, been shown to work, the United Kingdom has not suffered from the excesses of those who govern it. That said, it has, and does, endure a degree of abuse lower down the chain and the more ‘ordinary’ the holder of some power (however limited), the more likely such abuse is to happen.

Yet here we are, the UK, home to the Mother of all Parliaments, a country that more than any other anywhere, has stood like a beacon for freedom, in the grip of a situation that has seen the most basic liberties removed. Many ascribe this to Covid-19 but it is not a disease – however potent – that has put the country where it is. It is government’s response to it that has done that. In fairness, this is mirrored around the world but the globe is not under discussion here.

The UK government response has been criticised for oft-changes of direction and it is here that the root of the problems associated with the mask law arise, and in particular, those exempt from it. And it is relatively simple if one strips away convenient sensationalism and actually reads for example, the statements from Sainsburys, Morrisons and Aldi:

Sainsbury’s Statement

Dear customer, I have spent a lot of time in our stores over the past few days and I need to ask for your help with two key issues to keep you and all my colleagues safe. When shopping in our stores, you must wear a mask or visor unless you have a medical exemption. And you should also shop on your own. Thank you for your support. Security guards will support our colleagues at the front of store and will challenge customers who are not wearing masks or who are shopping in groups. I know you’ll understand and support what we are trying to do. We have also significantly reduced the number of customers allowed in our stores at any one time to ensure social distancing is maintained at all times. Together, these steps will go a long way to keep everyone safe, whether you are shopping or working with us. Please wear a mask or visor and please shop alone in our stores. Thank you for helping us to keep everyone safe.

Simon Roberts, Chief Executive.

Morrisons Statement:

Since the start of the pandemic we have introduced and consistently maintained thorough and robust safety measures in all our stores. These include managed store entrances, plastic screens, free face coverings, managed checkout queues, rigorous and regular cleaning and clear signage and instructions for customers. From today we are further strengthening our policy on masks.

Morrisons Chief Executive, David Potts said: “Those who are offered a face covering and decline to wear one won’t be allowed to shop at Morrisons unless they are medically exempt. Our store colleagues are working hard to feed you and your family, please be kind.”

Aldi Statement:

All customers will be required to wear a mask unless they are medically exempt. For a limited period, customers that forget to bring a mask will be provided with one, free of charge. Anyone without a medical exemption that refuses to wear a mask is not permitted to enter its stores.

Aldi will also be reminding customers that they should shop alone if they can, to reduce the number of people in store.

Giles Hurley, Chief Executive Officer at Aldi UK said: “The safety of our colleagues and customers is our number one priority. Wearing a mask is mandatory for everyone that shops at Aldi, except for the small number of people who have a medical exemption.”

Aldi was the first supermarket to introduce electronic traffic light systems across all of its stores to manage customer numbers and it continues to operate a number of strict safety measures such as screens at checkouts and a recent doubling of sanitisation stations in stores.

Note the use of the terminology in all three; ‘unless medically exempt’ and ‘medical exemption’. The Duty Manager at my local Asda also confirmed that this was the case in their stores so the reality is that nothing has changed except for a more rigorous enforcement of face coverings for those without any adverse health reactions to wearing one – those who are medically exempt, whatever it may be that ails them.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been characterised by over-reaction, panic, hysteria and a veritable tide of misinformation and just plain wrong information (especially with the entirely incorrect use of the word ‘Coronavirus’ to describe it) – on the part of everybody and from one extreme to another. Until and unless that stops, until and unless mainstream media cease hyping things up and until and unless the government takes a step back, listens to all opinion, is unwaveringly truthful, transparent and takes action to lessen the fear, increasing numbers of ordinary citizens will continue to stop believing, stop trusting and be even more justifiably critical.

© KJM Today/Kevan James

Images courtesy of Aldi and Asda

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