Should mask wearing continue to be law in shops, public transport and public places?

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Mask wearing market stall manager, Chichester, West Sussex
Mask wearing market stall manager, Chichester, West Sussex

“From 19 July 2021, there is no longer a legal requirement to wear face coverings in indoor settings or on public transport.” States the official UK government website today. (1)

Freedom Day has come and gone without any fuss. The pageantry normally associated with a Prime Minister announced special event on a summer’s day is nowhere to be seen and London and other city centres are still eerily quiet for this time of year after the lockdown days.

There has been no bunting, celebrations or bands playing jubilantly. In a twist of fate that would be hard to make up if it wasn’t true the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak have been contacted by the NHS app to advise them to stay at home. This is because last Friday they met with Health Secretary Sajid Javid who has tested positive for coronavirus. Today opposition leader Kier Starmer announced he is to isolate after his child tested positive for Covid-19.

With so many in ‘the top team’ self-isolating there is little cause for a long-awaited celebration. The buzzword remains ‘caution’ due to the rising cases of Covid-19 across the country and the papers have described this ‘unhistoric moment’ as ‘bizarre’ as they describe ‘pingdemic chaos’ instead.

The only towns enjoying full restaurants and jolly crowds are the traditional seaside resorts. English tourists are enjoying the soaring temperatures and families are heading to the coast to make the most of the school holidays with a sunny staycation.

Some citizens, mostly young people, did take the opportunity to mark the official end of restrictions with a special night of revelling that often continued throughout the day. Club venue reopening events, many of which that started at midnight ‘kicked off’ the dancing and reenergised the delayed festival season.

Now the legal restrictions on wearing a mask have been removed but confusingly the government “expects and recommends that people wear face coverings in crowded areas such as public transport.” The government also recommends not smoking for health reasons but the Office for National Statistics reports that 6.9 million people (around 15% of the population) still do. (2)

Nobody loves wearing a mask. They are another accessory to make or purchase, remember to take out with you, to launder or replace after use. They make breathing difficult, talking becomes muffled and recognising each other is tricky. We find it hard to see one another’s expressions which can be particularly bewildering for those who are hard of hearing, people who are not neuro- typical or who are disabled. More trivially ‘mask face’ is a real ‘thing’ in the beauty industry, especially if you add make up or sunscreen into the equation. Masks can cause unsightly skin break outs.

Wearing face masks helps protect others. We still do not know exactly how long immunity lasts after gaining anti-bodies to coronavirus in the immune system after receiving vaccines. This also applies to contracting the virus and getting better and then assuming a person is less able to catch or pass on the contagion after they have fully recovered.

The UK has not offered first Covid-19 vaccines to younger adults yet. They don’t have a choice about choosing to be immunised in this country. They should have the chance to travel to work and activities and shop without fear of catching coronavirus. “Mass infection is not an option: We must do more to protect our young” states the open letter published in the British medical journal The Lancet which has been signed by more than 1200 scientists according to NBC News. (3)

The John Snow Foundation labelled ‘Freedom Day’ dangerous and premature and also points out that as communities are more exposed to Covid-19 with the ending of restrictions “these policies will continue to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and marginalised, deepening inequalities.”. (4)

The UK government has not received delivery of the vaccines needed for younger adults second jabs yet and it is not expected to confirm delivery until September 2021 according to the BBC (Radio 4).

“Masks can reduce transmission by 25%” (5) “Face coverings worn over both the nose and the mouth can reduce the (usually unintentional) spread of coronavirus droplets from coughs, sneezes and speaking. If everyone wears one, the risks drop for all.” (6)

“As England reopens, hospital and ICU admissions are already above the point where restrictions were introduced last year” and “there are 500 patients in critical care” warns the Financial Times after analysing the government’s Covid-19 dashboard. (7)

Many have accused the government of giving mixed messages and confusing rules and regulations especially around the traffic light system for international travel. A simple mask wearing rule for all those coming into close contact with each other in a public indoor space or on public transport (apart from those who are medically exempt) means people can still go about their business but without the fear of getting sick or unintendedly infecting those who may be vulnerable.

Caring for each other with mask wearing in busy community inside places is the socially responsible thing to do whilst case numbers are high. This is because this is a disease where a person can have no symptoms but still be able to transmit a potentially deadly virus to others.

Citizens who live in households with an older person or someone in their household who is medically vulnerable need to be able to be protected from coming in too close contact with others out in public buildings, arts venues, buses, trains and superstores.

Sainsbury’s, Ikea, Primark and Holland and Barrett health food shops are not enforcing a compulsory face mask policy but have politely requested that shoppers wear masks when visiting their premises. Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, B&Q, Wilko, Boots, Asda and Tescos have said masks should be continued to be worn at this time by customers. All the supermarkets we have visited and also many high street stores have nearly all kept the hand sanitiser and walkway systems in place. Maximum customer numbers are still being managed by smaller boutiques and even some big brands like Next. “Companies are able to set their own rules” advised the Mirror who also reported how most UK airlines were continuing to ensure that everyone is wearing masks onboard. (8)

Millions of self-employed people find it difficult to afford to take time off work as they are not eligible for sick pay from an employer.  In 2020 the Office for National Statistics reported more than 5 million self employed people which make up 15.3% of employment nationally. (9)

Mask wearing remains compulsory on London Transport for now thanks to Mayor of London Sadiq Khan but it is uncertain how long this will be an exception to the overall lifting of restrictions. BBC news reported this week that 42 bus drivers who worked for Transport for London had died after catching Covid-19. Understandably they also report staff “feel vulnerable” (10) This viewpoint has also been felt by shop assistants, bar workers and many other professions in the healthcare and service sectors. Many key workers and men and women who provide service to the general public on a daily basis would feel safer if their service users all wore masks.

(1) ‘Face coverings: when to wear one, exemptions, and how to make your own’ Gov.UK, 20 July 2021 (1) ‘Face coverings: when to wear one, exemptions, and how to make your own’ Gov.UK

(2) ‘Adult smoking habits in the UK 2019’ Office for National Statistics, 7 July 2020 (2) ‘Adult smoking habits in the UK 2019’ Office for National Statistics

(3) ‘Freedom day: England reopens despite skyrocketing Covid cases, Boris Johnson isolating’ Rhea Mogul, NBC News, 18 July 2021 (3) ‘Freedom day: England reopens despite skyrocketing Covid cases, Boris Johnson isolating’ Rhea Mogul, NBC News

(4) ‘Mass infection is not an option: we must do more to protect our young.” John Snow Memorandum, 21 July 2021 Mass infection is not an option: we must do more to protect our young.” John Snow Memorandum

(5) ‘Boris Johnson’s ‘freedom day’ isolation tells us the virus is everywhere’ Polly Toynbee, Opinion, The Guardian, 19 July 2021 (5) ‘Boris Johnson’s ‘Freedom Day’ isolation tells us the virus is everywhere’ Polly Toynbee, Opinion, The Guardian

(6) ‘Frontline workers fearful as face mask rules ease’ Dearbail Jordan and Lucy Hooker, 19 July 2021 (6) ‘Frontline workers fearful as face mask rules ease’ Dearbail Jordan and Lucy Hooker, 19 July 2021

(7) ‘England’s ‘Freedom Day’ marked by public restraint’ Henry Mance, Financial Times, 20 July 2021 (7) ‘England’s ‘Freedom Day’ marked by public restraint’ Henry Mance, Financial Times

(8) ‘Everywhere you must still wear face masks – from Tesco and Primark to Ryanair’ Sophie Cocoran, Mirror, 19 July 2021 (9) ‘Coronavirus and self-employed in the UK’ Office for National Statistics, 20 July 2021

(9) ‘Coronavirus and self-employed in the UK’ Office for National Statistics, 20 July 2021 ‘Coronavirus and self-employed in the UK’ Office for National Statistics

(10) ‘What are the rules and guidance for face masks and coverings from 19 July?’ Michelle Roberts, Health Editor, BBC News Online (10) ‘What are the rules and guidance for face masks and coverings from 19 July?’ Michelle Roberts, Health Editor, BBC News Online