David Skelton is the author of The New Snobbery.
The Government was quite right to introduce some temporary restrictions as we learn more about the new Covid variant.
It’s also pretty clear that the British public also overwhelmingly endorse the common-sense, temporary actions that have been taken, with some 83 per cent of voters, including 81 per cent of Conservative voters, supporting the temporary measures on mask wearing.
Back in July, it was clear that vaccines had changed everything. The extraordinary work that enabled us to be one of the world’s vaccine leaders also enabled us to open up the economy safe in the knowledge that the vaccines gave substantial protection from death or serious illness against all known Covid variants. But we must tread carefully with the recent emergence of a new variant.
Put simply, as Tom Chivers set out in this excellent Unherd article, we don’t know enough about the Omicron variant to be able to say for sure how powerful the vaccines will be against it. Although the booster campaign will, of course, help, it seems sensible to introduce temporary and precautionary measures until we have more clarity about the new variant. And it’s quite right that those measures should include the wearing of masks.
Mask wearing isn’t some kind of miracle cure, but we do know that it is effective in reducing transmission. A recent study suggested that mask-wearing can reduce the incidence of transmission by around 10 per cent. It’s clear that masks are a low cost and straightforward way of reducing transmission, and that’s particularly important when we don’t know enough about the new variant.
Putting a mask on while doing a quick shop in Tesco is a minor inconvenience at most. But in the short time it takes to find out more about the new variant, it seems entirely reasonable to undergo a mild inconvenience in order to help protect shop workers, transport workers and fellow passengers and customers. This is particularly important because, as I wrote in The New Snobbery, supermarket workers are up to five times more likely to contract Covid than people working in other professions.
There’s a very vocal bunch on Twitter who seem to fall into the ‘Never To Masks’ category. But every single piece of polling evidence suggests that they are in a very small minority – the latest YouGov poll suggests that only 14 per cent of people oppose the recent mask measures.
These critics seem to suggest that the mild bother of being asked to briefly wear a mask in order to protect others is some kind of creeping authoritarianism. This is odd given that a large number of very well functioning democracies have mask requirements that are considerably more onerous than the UK’s temporary requirement.
Thankfully, and despite the best efforts of some who seemingly want to import every aspect of America’s toxic political discourse, the “mask discourse” has never been as divisive in the UK as it has been in the US. Many of the “never maskers” on the libertarian right seem entirely driven by a narrow, American-influenced concept of a freedom to do whatever they like, whereas British conservatism has a much richer heritage that embraces and nourishes freedom, but also concepts like responsibility to others and social cohesion.
Nobody wants to have to wear a mask forever and nobody is suggesting that we should. Hopefully the mask requirement will only last for a matter of weeks. The fact that the Government removed the mask mandate in July suggests that they, rightly, don’t want the mask requirement to last any longer than it has to.
In the short time that it takes to find out more about the new variant, it seems entirely reasonable to have to put up with the minor hassle of wearing a mask on a trip to the shops in order to help protect others.