Face masks could become “optional” from July 19, but experts in the field are urging Brits to keep wearing them – in certain situations, at least.
Boris Johnson is set to announce details of the delayed stage 4 of lockdown easing in England, which is currently scheduled for a fortnight’s time.
The prime minister is expected to tell the nation that we must “all continue to carefully manage the risks from Covid and exercise judgment when going about our lives.”
Alongside the press conference, the government will publish the results of its reviews into the use of vaccine passports and the future of social distancing guidance, Downing Street confirmed.
Meanwhile, the Scottish government has already said there will be an “ongoing need” for mask wearing after August 9, when Scottish lockdown is set to ease. It said policies are “under review,” but the public could still be expected to wear masks in certain public spaces, such as shops and public transport.
Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of Primary Health Care Services at the University of Oxford, who has been a fierce advocate for face coverings during the pandemic, says “now is not the time to stop wearing masks”.
“Only 50% of the population is fully vaccinated. The unvaccinated include almost all children and most young people under 30 – the very people who do a lot of social mixing,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“To remove the requirement for masks just at the point when people will come together in bars and clubs... is a political decision not a scientifically-grounded one.”
“The drivers of this pandemic are superspreader events – where people gather indoors, sometimes unvaccinated and unmasked, and where ventilation is poor. Because the virus is airborne and can remain suspended in the air for many minutes and even hours after an infected person has exhaled, the risk of infection at such events is very high.
“To remove the requirement for masks just at the point when people will come together in bars and clubs, perhaps loudly celebrating their newfound ‘freedom’ is a political decision not a scientifically-grounded one.”
Professor Greenhalgh echoes the view of behavioural scientist Stephen Reicher, who points out that mask wearing is an area where one individual’s freedom affects the safety of others – “akin to my freedom to drive fast affecting your safety on the road”.
“In such circumstances, some government regulation is appropriate,” says Professor Greenhalgh.
“The message that responsible citizens should mask, coupled with the politicisation of so-called ‘freedom day’ is a mixed message that will have the effect of further polarising the debate about masks when what is urgently needed is an emphasis on our collective social responsibility to help each other through this pandemic.”
Professor Adam Finn, from the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), has said he does not plan to ditch his own mask.
“Well, on a personal level I shall certainly be continuing to wear a mask if I’ve got any symptoms or if I’m in an enclosed space with lots of other people for a prolonged period of time, indefinitely in fact,” he told Sky News on Sunday
“I think mask wearing is obviously something we’ve learned is extremely valuable to do under certain circumstances. That doesn’t mean I’ll wear a mask all the time but it does mean I will some of the time.”
Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases at The University of East Anglia, is less opposed to the idea of optional mask wearing, saying he feels “okay” with it. However, there are circumstances where he believes masks should still be worn.
“What I would say is that if you are in a vulnerable group and are going into a crowded indoor environment then it is sensible to still wear one,” he says. “Also if you are visiting a very vulnerable individual indoors when Covid is common in the community then I would wear one for their protection, even though I have been fully vaccinated.”
Dr Julian Tang, an honorary associate professor and clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, says some mask wearing – such as on public transport – “may be wise” as there are still “several unknowns to deal with”.
“We are not sure how effective and how long natural and vaccine-induced immunity lasts against the different variants – and whether the incidence and severity of long COVID complications may differ between variants,” he says.
“We’re not entirely clear how Covid-19 will combine with flu and other seasonal respiratory viruses, if these return once all restrictions are lifted – but this will not be good.
“Similarly, these seasonal respiratory viruses combined with the usual cold winter exacerbations of chronic diseases – diabetes, hypertension, chronic heart, lung, kidney, neurological conditions – will be demanding for the NHS.”
But, Dr Tang concedes that relaxing the rules on masking is “part of the process in learning to live with the virus – and, as with flu, unfortunately, there will be casualties on the way.”