Face masks: do they make us safer?

A recurring theme of this crisis has been the nature of the Government’s guidance: “clear as mud” would sum it up, said Tom Peck in The Independent. To take a recent example, if you watched Boris Johnson’s “People’s PMQs” on Facebook last Friday, you’ll know you should “go back to work if you can”; and if you saw Michael Gove reiterating that message on Sky News on Sunday, you might have dusted down your pinstripe and walked sorrowfully to the bus stop the next morning. But if you didn’t – and were going by the Government’s official guidance, which was “work from home if you can” – you may have spent another week in your PJs. Similarly, last week No. 10 briefed that face masks were about to become mandatory in English shops, after Johnson appeared in one for the first time, only for Gove to pop up on TV two days later, saying it should be left to the public’s “good sense”. Hours after that, Johnson announced that facial coverings would indeed become mandatory in shops in England, “in a few days” – later confirmed as from 24 July.

It’s true, the Government’s policy has seemed “opaque”, said Camilla Tominey in The Daily Telegraph. But according to Cabinet insiders, the confusion reflects not a split within the Government so much as Tories wrestling with their own libertarian instincts. With no conclusive evidence that face masks protect the wearer, or others around them, ministers have been reluctant to follow in Scotland’s footsteps, and extend the mask requirement from public transport to shops.

But is it really such a big deal, wondered Eleanor Margolis in the I newspaper – to require people to cover their faces when they go into a shop, given that there is actually mounting evidence that masks do slow the spread of the virus? In other countries, most people wear masks, and have done so for months. Even Donald Trump finally donned a mask in “big-boy” blue last week, despite his MAGA supporters viewing masks as somehow weak and un-American. In England, take-up is low because the Government initially dismissed the idea of wearing them, said James Forsyth in The Spectator. We knew less about transmission then, and with PPE in short supply, it wanted to prevent a rush on medical-grade masks. Now, although many of us hate wearing them, making masks mandatory seems sensible, said Zoe Strimpel in The Daily Telegraph. If worn properly, they have protective benefits; and added to that, the sight of others wearing them will reassure people that it’s safe for them to go out, and start rebuilding their lives.