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Over the last few months, the Government has been repeatedly quizzed about whether it will more strictly enforce face masks. While it’s compulsory to wear them on public transport, there have been calls to extend the rules to all indoor spaces. Writing for the Financial Times, Nick Boles, the former MP for Grantham and Stamford, said that it’s “dangerously lax” to not use them in further settings, and others have unfavourably compared England to Scotland, where masks are mandatory in shops.

Criticisms heightened this weekend after the Government sent out a series of mixed messages on the subject. On Friday, Boris Johnson said that a “stricter” approach was needed on wearing masks in shops, and indicated that he and other advisers would be looking into the guidance.

Two days later, while interviewed by Andrew Marr, Michael Gove said that wearing a mask in a shop was “basic good manners”, but that coverings should not be mandatory. Then yesterday, Robert Buckland said that mask-wearing “isn’t just an act of courtesy”, but about “consumer confidence”.  Now Matt Hancock is apparently to announce that wearing them is to become compulsory in shops.

The Government has been under even more pressure to rethink its position on masks as the scientific case for them appears to have advanced. New research from the Royal Society Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics initiative suggests that their “use could reduce onward transmission by asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic wearers if widely used in situations where physical distancing is not possible or predictable”.

It points out that 40 to 80 per cent of infections occur from individuals without symptoms; that respiratory droplets are a major mode of transmission, and that face masks reduce droplet dispersal.

While ConservativeHome supported the initial emergency measures to control the pandemic, including lockdown,  Gove’s common sense approach looks like the right one to take.

During the start of the pandemic, given the amount of unknowns about Coronavirus, the Government was left with little choice but to increase its powers, lest there was civil disobedience and the virus was passed about. But it should be increasingly withdrawing these now, empowering individuals to make safe decisions. Not least because we could be living with Covid-19 for a very long time. 

This is not only a philosophical position; the Conservatives also need to be realistic about how Brits would respond to being told to wear face masks in shops when they are already doing this on public transport. The more rules, the less people may comply with the existing ones – especially when they are worn out by lockdown.

Additionally, polling by Ipsos-MORI has shown that Brits are one of the most sceptical nations about face masks. This is not only because they have never faced a health crisis of this sort – in the way China and Hong Kong have (post-SARS), making masks more routine – but they tend to think the measure is over-cautious.

Indeed, the RC’s Science in Emergencies Tasking group found in April that the UK had 25 per cent compliance for face masks compared to 83 per cent in Italy, 66 per cent in the US and 64 per cent in Spain. Intriguingly, data has shown that Northerners, Conservatives, Leave voters and men are some of the least likely to wear them.

Some have suggested that “moral framing” is what could encourage more mask wearing; in other words, pointing out the altruistic benefits of wearing them. This seems quite sensible; it is much better for the Government to demonstrate the statistical evidence for them (if there is enough) rather than force compliance, which should be avoided as much as possible.

Mandating health activities, like lockdown, has always been treated as the honourable thing to do. Sadiq Khan and Nicola Sturgeon clearly believe that telling people to wear face masks gives them the moral high ground. But my personal view, having had to sport one in London most days, is that it’s infantilising and a state overreach – to be told to wear them in announcements.

The Conservatives will struggle to impose masks anyway, as they have been so inconsistent in their messaging. There’s also no way shop staff in busy stores can impose the rule. But ultimately Tories must not forget their fundamental principles; individual responsibility is paramount, even in a pandemic.

300 comments for: Gove is right: wearing face masks should be voluntary

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