Philip Davies is MP for Shipley.
From the outset, the Government’s Covid-19 restrictions have infringed on our freedoms. The majority of these rules, such as the rule of six and the 10pm curfew, have been entirely arbitrary, escaping the usual parliamentary scrutiny, and without any scientific basis at all. One of the worst examples of the suffocation of our basic freedoms – without any good reason – is the mandatory wearing of masks.
For the Government to make something compulsory – enforceable by law – there must be an overwhelming case for doing so. Even by the Government’s own admission, they haven’t come close to meeting that test.
It is now clear that masks are probably one of the most under-researched strands of the Government’s Coronavirus response. If we begin to accept this kind of guesswork as law, who knows what sort of arbitrary authoritarian policymaking may be acceptable in the future?
Matt Hancock has said that masks “increase [the] confidence in people to shop”, and that those who did not wear a face covering will be fined. However, the minutes of a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ meeting, before the introduction of this policy, record that:
“The evidence on effectiveness of masks for source control….is weak. Evidence for protecting the mask wearer from becoming infected is also weak.”
Public Health England’s conclusion in June 2020 was that:
“There is weak evidence from observational and modelling studies that community-wide mask wearing may contribute to reducing the spread of Covid-19…”
In response to one of the Parliamentary Questions I subsequently tabled, the Government explained that Public Health England had undertaken an initial ‘rapid review’. It then conducted a further ‘rapid review’ of facemasks after people were mandated, by law, to wear them. The reviews considered various studies many of which, it seems, provided limited evidence of the effectiveness of masks outside clinical settings where all other factors can be controlled.
Various reservations have been expressed about the usefulness of masks, including by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the Cochrane Review on face coverings. Professor Robert Dingwall, one of the UK’s leading sociologists and adviser to British governments on pandemic policy since 2005, and Professor Carl Heneghan, a general practitioner and clinical epidemiologist, have warned that the existing evidence is insufficient, and higher quality studies need to be conducted to ascertain the effectiveness of face coverings in the community.
As the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has also said, it is difficult to assess which interventions are effective at controlling the spread of the virus, given many are in place at the same time.
Since their introduction, face coverings have become associated with people ‘doing their part’ to stop the spread of the virus and to protect others. However, the scaremongering that has led to this attitude may actually have an adverse effect, because facemasks also come with risks and potential harms.
Masks accumulate viral particles and become a hazard in their own right. Professor Tom Jefferson, the lead author on the Cochrane Review on face coverings, who has been studying respiratory viruses for 30 years, has pointed to the risks from handling them. Putting on, adjusting or taking off a mask means we have to touch our faces. Virus particles are quickly transferred from hands to face and then ingested or inhaled. Masks are stuffed into pockets and handbags ready for constant reuse. Some are discarded in public toilets or on pavements, where they also become an environmental hazard.
Professor Jefferson also argues that the sense of protection afforded by mask wearing makes some people less vigilant about touching. This is backed up by the World Health Organisation’s concerns about the potential harms of masks – which include giving a false sense of security to wearers. Some medical opinion even goes as far as to say that masks are actually a possible risk factor for infection and a higher incidence of Covid-19.
We have repeatedly been told that the Government is being ‘led by the science’ during the pandemic as if all scientists share one perspective. Professor Heneghan says that without solid evidence, science is simply a spectrum of opinions. Professor Dingwall adds that a common theme within the Government’s ‘led-by-the-science’ approach is that, even if the evidence is weak, there is an insistence that we should follow these policies anyway. In a supposedly free country this is simply not good enough.
I believe that if people want to wear a mask – given the uncertainty about their likely benefits and risks – then they should be free to do so. However, if people don’t want to wear a mask, they should be free to decide that for themselves too.
In the early days of Covid-19, all interventions, from social distancing to isolation and mask-wearing, went unchallenged by most because these measures were perceived to be temporary. People probably thought there was more evidence, for example, to support wearing facemasks than turns out to be the case.
The Government cannot be allowed to introduce, and continue, a policy – enforceable by law – that forces almost the entire country to cover their face on the off chance it is beneficial. Yet as coronavirus restrictions are slowly lifting across the UK, those advocating face coverings are digging their heels in.
I have found it chilling how easily the public have been frightened (deliberately) into giving up their freedoms. We cannot allow ourselves to sleepwalk into the kind of authoritarianism we would usually associate with Communist China. It is time to get back to normal – and not the new normal that some have in mind for us.