Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, the Government has been subject to numerous international comparisons – with regards to how well it is handling the pandemic.
The most recent area of contention is face masks, which many countries have quickly cautioned their people to wear.
They are now compulsory, for instance, in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and some German states have even introduced fines of up to €10,000 if their citizens do not use them on public transport, long-distance trains and in shops.
The pressure over whether the UK should follow suit increased on Tuesday when Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish First Minister, recommended the public wear them in enclosed spaces when they cannot socially distance.
Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has also been very vocal on the matter, threatening to “unilaterally” order their use in the capital.
But the Government has remained rather resistant.
Though Britain has stockpiled non-medical face masks (just in case – it appears), Matt Hancock has told reporters that they have “weak evidence”, and that “the most important thing” remains social distancing.
Given these comments, some may have been surprised at yesterday’s press briefing when Boris Johnson appeared to do a U-turn on the Government’s position.
He called face coverings “useful” and saying they “give people confidence they can go back to work”.
Why the sudden enthusiasm for them, many will wonder…
The first thing to say is that Johnson’s words seem to contradict the “led by the science” approach.
Professor Dame Angela McLean, the UK deputy chief scientific adviser, has said that Sage found “weak evidence of a small effect” in regards to face masks, and the jury is still very much out on their effectiveness in this crisis.
To understand their importance, scientists would need to test two groups – one without the intervention (face masks), and one with it, and then control all the differences between them (to isolate the impact of the intervention). This is no easy task in the middle of a pandemic…
Some scientists even speculate that face masks could do more harm than good in a population.
There are concerns that they do not protect the virus getting into the eyes, as goggles do; that the public needs training in how to fit and dispose of them, and that people can infect themselves with particles when they take their mask off.
Furthermore, some worry that the public might take up valuable stock for doctors and nurses.
Many medical masks are available on Amazon, where it’s possible to buy 10 of the surgical variety for £7.
This could cause real problems for any medics who, out of desperation, have been forced to access them that way.
Furthermore, the UK’s effort to stockpile masks might divert the Government from trying to tackle its Personal Protective Equipment problem.
While it has shipped millions of equipment, the demand is astronomical – and it surely needs the maximum energy focussed there.
Ultimately the question is whether changing official guidance on face masks (as it is expected the Government will do), is worth it – when the evidence is so unclear.
It seems an example of leaders simply following Sturgeon’s policy, which isn’t actually that impressive – when one digs deep into the wording.
Take for instance, the non-mandatory advice for people to wear face coverings “made of cloth or other textiles, such as a scarf”.”
Where is the data showing that wearing a scarf adds to the current measures designed to protect people?
With social distancing widespread, the need for face masks is supposed to go down.
If one had to hazard a guess as to why Johnson is going in the same direction, one suspects he is trying very hard to avoid accusations of not being cautious enough with the public’s health.
He has had numerous accusations from a media convinced that the UK is the worst country on earth in terms of death rates; they are obsessed with the idea Britain was too “slow” to go into lockdown.
Add to that he has had his own near-death experience with the Coronavirus, and perhaps it is not surprising that he is going for the “better safe than sorry” approach.
And, of course, for any leader, advocating face masks is a people-pleasing move.
What better gesture is there, after all, to show you care about your citizens then asking them to wear protective clothing?
But it is yet another example of the problem with international comparisons.
Of course, it’s imperative for every state to learn from those that have had success.
But these are difficult, nuanced and scientific decisions that ultimately have to be decided by the UK’s own team.
If there is not enough evidence for face masks, there is not enough evidence for face masks – and the Government should follow its own advisers, not try to emulate Germany, or anyone else.