How The Government Spent Four Months Screwing Up Its Message On Face Coverings

Tuesday finally saw guidance issued for wearing them in shops – but not until July 24. What took so long?

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After months of uncertainty, Tuesday finally saw the government come out with a clear line on the wearing of face coverings in shops to help fight coronavirus: they will become mandatory in England from July 24, with a fine of £100 for people who refuse to put them on.

Unfortunately, by the time the announcement came, ministers had given so many conflicting opinions on the subject that the Tories’ stance on the subject was about as clear as Dominic Cummings’ eyesight.

As recently as Sunday, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove had said it was “best to trust people’s common sense” rather than tell them what to do – but the very next day justice secretary Robert Buckland said he would support making them mandatory in public. Actually, he said he would “perhaps” support making them mandatory, whatever that means.

Hours later the PM himself appeared on live TV and said coverings “have real value in confined spaces” and that people “should” wear them in shops.

This week’s decision comes nearly six months after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the UK. So what took so long?

January: ‘Very little evidence’

Way back in January, a blog post from Public Health England said there was “very little evidence of widespread benefit” to wearing a face mask outside clinical settings such as hospitals.

But it also said they should be considered when “visiting a busy enclosed space where you can’t social distance such as a crowded shop” in order to help stop the spread of the virus.

You read that correctly. At the beginning of the year, before even imposing a lockdown was on the cards, never mind lifting one, the government’s premier health body was offering advice that would be applicable just a few weeks later.

April: ‘The science is weak’

Fast forward to April 24, a month into lockdown. Health secretary Matt Hancock had changed tack and, even though the country was in grips of the pandemic, said the evidence on the effectiveness of face masks was “weak” and there were no plans to make them mandatory.

Now, it’s worth bearing in mind that at the time Hancock also had to consider the shortage of PPE that threatened the NHS. This, however, is not an issue the government currently has to contend with. Face coverings are widely available.


Also April: ‘They will be useful’

In case you’re under the impression that the smorgasbord of conflicting Tory opinions on face masks is a relatively recent development, then this section will knock your socks off.

Just six days after the above comments from Hancock, Johnson said “face coverings will be useful” as the country came out of lockdown both for “epidemiological reasons” and also “for giving people confidence they can go back to work”.

Still April: ‘One of our most important tools’

While Hancock was insisting the scientific evidence around face masks was “weak”, the actual people compiling that scientific evidence were telling him he was talking rubbish.

Jeremy Howard, a data scientist who led a global review panel on the effectiveness of masks, said masks “could be one of our most important tools”.

And if you were in any doubt about whether or not he was talking specifically about Hancock, he said: “The evidence does not show at all what he claimed.”

May 10: Nothing

On May 10 the PM spoke to the nation and outlined “the first sketch of a road map” out of the coronavirus lockdown.

Banging his fist on the table and trying his utmost to present the clear message needed by a nation suffering after weeks of unprecedented restrictions, Johnson spoke of a fancy new alert system, unlimited outdoor exercise and the possibility of returning to work.

And absolutely nothing on face masks.

May 11: ‘It may protect others’

It wasn’t until the next day that the government issued new guidance that actually mentioned face coverings, suggesting they should be used in enclosed spaces such as shops or public transport where social distancing may not be possible.

The advice reads: “The evidence suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect you, but it may protect others if you are infected but have not developed symptoms.”

But it was still only a suggestion.

And in the spirit of saying you’re following the science when you’re actually not, a few weeks later it was revealed the scientists advising the government had concluded masks should be worn as early as April 21, weeks before the actual guidance was issued.

June 4: ‘We need to ensure every precaution is taken’

And so the situation remained until June 4, when transport secretary Grant Shapps announced masks would be made mandatory on public transport, saying “we need to ensure every precaution is taken” on buses, trains, aircraft and ferries.

June 5: ...but not in shops

Just a day later, the very same Grant Shapps insisted they should not be made compulsory in shops as they are “clearly a different environment” with people there spending less time next to each other.

At this point, British Medical Association (BMA) council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul was sufficiently worried to suggest face coverings “should not be restricted to public transport”.

Also June 5: Wear face masks in shops, says the WHO

Then the World Health Organisation stepped into the fray and told governments they should enforce the wearing of face coverings “on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments”.

Still June 5: Wear face masks in shops hospitals, says the UK

Instead of doing so, the UK government merely introduced the rule for people visiting hospitals – which a lot of people had assumed was already the case, because obviously.

The rest of June and the first weeks of July followed an increasingly familiar pattern of someone calling for face coverings to be mandatory in public places, and the government not making them mandatory.

There was London mayor Sadiq Khan.

Leading scientists had a go.

The British Medical Association tried as well.

Scotland, which has reported no new deaths in five days, introduced face masks in shops earlier this month. In England, however, the government response has led to a situation where the following three headlines all appeared during the last 24 hours.

PA Media

So who exactly is against wearing masks? Why won’t the government just tell people to put them on?

The answer appears to be no one, really. A small minority of people on social media are expressing outrage, but those who “oppose the mandatory wearing of face masks”...

... tend to be the same people who think the virus has “petered out” and the whole pandemic is just “Project Fear” (it hasn’t and it isn’t).


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