Are you still wearing a mask when you go into a shop, or public transport or other indoor spaces where there are strangers? Yes, I thought so. And so am I. Why? Because it seems the least I can do in a pandemic which has just this month claimed it’s five millionth victim in the world. However, here in England, we are not being mandated to take this simple precaution since so-called ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19th when our government decided that the virus was no longer a sufficient threat to need such measures as face coverings, social distancing and proof of vaccination for entry to crowded spaces. Since then, confirmed infections, hospitalisations and deaths have been steadily climbing and, compared to our nearest neighbours in Europe, we are doing very badly indeed on all three of these measurements of virus control.
Mask wearing is now the exception rather than the rule in this country and there is no disapproval for a bare face. In fact, I now feel self conscious in my mask as though I am rather ridiculous for being so cautious.
All of which has got me thinking about what is going on and how to respond. Last year when we all went into that first lockdown it felt very powerfully that ‘we are all in this together.’ Yes, there were rules and even draconian laws about what we could and couldn't do, but people seemed to accept that these made perfect sense when the danger of infection was so palpable and when a thousand of our fellow citizens were dying every single day. The message was also crystal clear: Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives. Initially hand sanitizing was stressed over face coverings, and I didn’t wear a mask at all when I went shopping during that first lockdown.
As more became known about the virus, it was clear that Covid virus infection was very largely airborne and passed to people via droplets sprayed out when someone nearby spoke, coughed, sang or laughed in confined, poorly ventilated spaces. So, with knowledge comes informed choice, namely to avoid all those things that create the most risk. So, we all started wearing masks and it became apparent that meeting outdoors and limiting the number of people in a given space was sensible and worked well. And, with the successful and speedy roll-out of the vaccination programme, it looked as though we had this pandemic if not actually beaten, then very definitely on the ropes.
So, as we move into autumn and winter, why am I feeling so cautious and concerned once again? Since the summer, I had started to go to the theatre and cinema and made arrangements to meet friends for lunch or dinner. At work we had begun to have face to face meetings once more and we have just signed a new contract for proper office space, although we will continue to work flexibly and work from home from time to time as appropriate. I had tentatively started to use public transport again, although there were noticeably fewer people than normal on the underground. But, as the weather gets colder, I can feel my confidence starting to slide, possibly because I no longer think ‘we’re all in this together’ but rather ‘the devil take the hindmost’. And my evidence for this is the fact that fewer and fewer people are bothering with the simplest and easiest way to protect others - namely to wear a face covering. Why is this?
In the beginning messaging was clear and unequivocal. We knew what we had to do and most of us did it. We also knew why we were doing it and accepted that these were good reasons. We were protecting ourselves and other people and our health system. Then we came out of that first lockdown and, it seems to me, from that point, messaging became both confused and confusing. There were now ‘tiers’ for different regions and viral ‘hotspots’. Then there were travel restrictions according to a traffic light system which determined things like testing and quarantine. Schools were safe to reopen until they were suddenly unsafe. Go to work, don’t go to work. Wear a mask. Masks make no difference. At the moment we are apparently following Plan A. This seems to be based on lifting all mandated restrictions and relying on vaccination to protect the most vulnerable. There is considerable resistance to go to Plan B whatever that may be. Is there a Plan C or D? Who knows? I certainly have no idea.
Following the Science
Scientists deal in data and in modelling data. When the infection rate was doubling every few days it was very clear that something drastic had to be done if there were not to be hundreds of thousands of deaths. Initially I felt enormous sympathy for scientists and the politicians they were doing their best to advise. The number of unknowns and variables must have been overwhelming. But is that true now? We have been living with Covid for nearly two years and much is now incontrovertible. What is the current scientific advice? Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) is urging the government to reintroduce some of the measures lifted three months ago, including mask-wearing indoors, social distancing and working from home. Why? Because things really don’t look good. We currently have an average of 47,000 new cases of Covid a day, up 18% from last week and a 135 daily average death rate, up 16% on last week. Why is this clear and urgent scientific advice so impossible to follow? You tell me!
To stay safe, we all need to protect each other. This requires a degree of acceptance that ‘I am my neighbour's keeper’. Is there such a thing as ‘social convention’ and if so, why do we accept it? Let’s take queueing. There are no laws about this but there is convention. We wait in line, we wait our turn. We don’t barge in front or push someone out of our way and we would expect to be shamed by others in the queue if we did. I was listening to the radio last week and there was a blind contributor who said that when he was being guided past others in a queue at airport arrivals, a woman in the queue asked why his disability meant that he couldn't wait in line like everyone else! Such is the desire for ‘fairness’. However, it would seem that no such convention or shame exists for failing to wear a mask. Maybe that’s because mask wearing has become politicized and weaponised. If you believe that a mask signifies some ideology with which you disagree, then you make a choice based on the totally irrational idea that what you believe will protect your life (see also anti-vaxxers and pandemic hoax conspiracy theorists).
Where does all this leave you and me? I am now triple vaccinated for which I am enormously grateful to the brilliant science that made this possible, to the government for acquiring those vaccines and to the NHS for the fast and efficient roll-out of the vaccination programme. But - and it’s quite a big but - infections, hospitalisations and deaths are still much higher than they should be or could be if we once again took simple precautions. My vaccinations protect me from serious disease and death but I can still catch Covid 19 and infect others. I felt a lot safer when everyone was wearing a mask in shops and on transport, when people respected distance and when there was a sense that we were all looking out for each other. Am I being overly sensitive, unnecessarily critical of others and ridiculously cautious? Perhaps I am, but the numbers speak for themselves and, if memory serves me, we were in a similar situation this time last year. And we all know how that panned out.
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Totally agree about the wearing of masks. I very luckily went abroad on holiday in October and felt totally safe, everyone onboard had to wear a mask. Whilst there I noticed even young children were wearing masks. Whilst away, Spain's rules changed and we were allowed up to 12 at a table, and I never once felt unsafe. Back here, and it is now our own choice to wear a mask, and I feel that I am being looked at for wearing a mask. I am vaccinated and want to wear a mask to protect myself and others, yet I feel people looking and feel judged. I also agree with one of the comments that it could make people not want to wear masks even more, if they feel they are judged for doing so. My husband and I will for sure continue to wear our masks in shops and enclosed areas where a safe distance is not possible, and feel that others should do so too, for everyone's safety.