Face masks at home: The latest sign that public health officials have lost any sense of perspective

Tuesday, August 4, 2020
By Paul Martin

Rob Lyons
4 Aug, 2020

There’s still no universal agreement on whether face masks can really prevent the spread of Covid-19, but it’s now being suggested they should be worn even at home. So, where is this appetite for restrictions going to end?

Anyone who’s followed the demands of public health authorities in recent years will know that no level of restriction on personal autonomy is ever enough. There’s always another big idea that will save us from ourselves. To tackle obesity, for example, it’s never sufficient to tell people to eat less and move more. In the UK, we’ve had taxes on sugary drinks, restrictions on the size of chocolate bars and other snacks, and endless nagging campaigns. So, it’s no surprise that once a government starts to make face masks mandatory in one place, it soon deems it necessary to wear them in other places.

For months, the UK government held the line that the evidence on the effectiveness of masks in controlling Covid-19 was weak. Indeed, following the line from the World Health Organization, senior health officials argued that routinely wearing a mask was not only useless but could make matters worse. The virus is too small to be stopped by anything but the most non-porous masks, we were assured. Moreover, untrained people wearing a flimsy ‘surgical’ mask or a simple cloth mask would inevitably fiddle with them, it was suggested. If they happened to be infected themselves, they could touch the mask and then touch other surfaces, infecting those surfaces with the virus.

Since the early days of the pandemic, some have argued that this advice was wrong. Face masks, they said, could be useful. In June, the World Health Organization amended its advice to say face masks were advisable in situations where social distancing was impossible, such as on crowded public transport. While the UK government then made regulatory the wearing of masks on trains, Tubes and buses, it seemed less than convinced that they should be worn in shops or other public places.

But since then, there has been a bout of mask mania. Whether to wear a mask or not has become entwined with the wider culture wars. Not wearing a mask is seen as a defiant statement of autonomy, while wearing a mask is a signal you are an educated, caring individual who puts protecting society above personal inconvenience. By mid-July, just a day after senior ministers had publicly declared they weren’t necessary, masks became mandatory in shops.

And the result! A call for masks to be worn in more and more places. Last week, British PM Boris Johnson announced that mandatory mask-wearing would be extended to other enclosed public spaces, such as museums, churches and cinemas. Yet social distancing is perfectly possible in these places. Museums only ever get seriously crowded when they are either tourist hotspots or during blockbuster exhibitions, when rarely seen artworks are put on show for a limited time, and those problems can easily be dealt with by restricting ticket sales.


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