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The Case for Mask-Wearing is Undermined by a Divided Parliament


November 29, 2021.

In the 'Covid wars' between risk-minimisers and risk-maximisers on how to deal with the pandemic, mask wearing is often the front line. That’s because, unlike vaccination, face coverings can be a visible indicator of how individuals react to the guidance on how to combat the virus.

Image - Sky News

Now, with the Government set to make masks mandatory in England from 4am tomorrow (Tuesday November 30) in shops, public transport, hairdressers, banks, post offices and school corridors, the debate over pros and cons is reigniting once more.

On the one hand, a recent BMJ study found mask-wearing was linked to a 53 per cent cut in Covid-19 incidence. On the other, ministers like Grant Shapps argue that Scotland has had face-mask wearing in force but “not seen dramatic differences” in Covid-19 rates.

And while the new Omicron variant has prompted precautionary new measures, health minister Edward Argar insisted today that the guiding principle was “proportionality”. He suggested compulsory masks weren’t needed in pubs or classrooms, where individuals were often “not moving around” or knew each other.

That sounded a bit like the Jacob Rees-Mogg defence for Tory MPs not wearing face coverings in the Commons (they had a “convivial fraternal spirit”). Yet Dominic Harrison, Blackburn’s director of public health, warned that unless mask mandates were applied to all enclosed indoor spaces they simply didn’t make sense.

The Prime Minister has a chequered record on mask wearing

Image - PoliticsHome

One problem for the PM is that his own thirst for personal freedom has led to a chequered record on mask wearing. He had to apologise for not following mask rules in an NHS hospital recently.

But more telling was that fellow theatre goers spotted him taking off his mask when the lights went down during a performance of Macbeth. Such a practice not only looks shifty and dishonest, it more importantly defeats the entire public health object of the exercise.

The wider difficulty is the signal it sends to Tory backbenchers as well as the public. Some of them actually have a very valid case to make that Parliament should be voting on any new mask mandate before rather than after the rules come into force. The regulations can be easily drafted, so any delay only fuels scepticism about the Government’s handling of the pandemic.

As the London Underground shows, it’s impossible to have enough staff to physically enforce mask wearing. Getting back in the habit for some can only be prompted by a broader perception of public consent and political leadership. If Parliament hasn’t even voted on compulsion, if the rules are confusing, and the PM himself is spotted mask-less, how can the vast majority of the public be expected to follow suit?

© paul-waugh / The i 2021 via MSN News

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