The wrong time to end the mask mandate

A front page from The Sun newspaper, with the headline "Free Lions" on a red cross, showing Boris Johnson with thumbs up at the top and two footballers at the bottom, with sub-headings on the four corners: "Masks & distancing laws axed", "Order to WFH [work from home] will be ditched", "Drink at bar & full stadiums", "So now let's Kane the Danes" (a reference to the forthcoming Euro 2020 semi-final). At the top are separate stories, "Exclusive by Carrie Johnson: Why I'm saving the elephants" and "Emma: I'm all set for Strictly [Come Dancing]".
The Sun’s front page, 6th July 2021

Yesterday, the government announced that most if not all the current rules and restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of Coronavirus, including the requirement to wear masks in enclosed public spaces and to keep at least a metre’s distance from others and the “rule of six” that governs indoor social gatherings (i.e. a maximum of six people), will end as of the 19th along with the requirement to register with the NHS’s test and trace system when visiting most enclosed spaces such as restaurants and the recommendation that people be allowed or required to work from home unless it is absolutely necessary to go into an office. It seems the government have given into pressure from Tories who were demanding that the economy be opened up and ignored the scientists who told them that infection rates are rising because of the Indian or ‘delta’ variant and large numbers of young and middle-aged people were still unvaccinated or had received only one dose. The wearing of masks will not be banned, of course, and some retailers will still ask their customers to wear them (though whether they can force them to when it is not required by law is another matter), but it is to become a matter of personal choice or judgement rather than a legal requirement. Some people are calling this “freedom day”, as if we’ve really been confined to our houses since January, while others fear that this will mean they have much less freedom than they do now.

Most of my friends who are disabled or chronically ill are terrified of what the removal of the mask mandate and social distancing means for them. Many of them have impaired immune systems or respiratory deficiencies and, even if vaccinated, being infected with Coronavirus would mean a far greater risk to their health than to a healthy, non-disabled adult. I have seen many people say that they have enjoyed the freedom of being able to go out, to use public transport, to shop and enjoy other public facilities with minimal fear of infection because most people wear masks and generally keep their distance, and some are saying they will go out much less if most people no longer do. Some people have no choice, of course; they have to work with the public and are also currently protected by masking and social distancing, which as things stand will be withdrawn on the 19th. The requirement to wear masks and to keep one’s distance from others reduces their risk of becoming infected when inside a shop or travelling on the bus considerably; masks mostly work by catching the droplets leaving the nose and mouth that are the major carriers for the virus, and offer much less protection for the wearer (though stronger masks, such as FFP3, offer more protection).

Removing the mask requirement at a time when infections are increasing is simply illogical. We may recall that it was introduced roughly a year ago during a lull in infections, after the first wave had died down and before the “Kent variant” (or alpha variant) started to spread in September, let alone before it produced the second wave in December and January which triggered the third lockdown. The situation today is just not the same as this time last year; it was thought safe enough to actively encourage people to eat out in restaurants, which nobody is suggesting right now. It had become obvious that supermarkets were a major source of infection as people could not avoid going into them, often could not get a home delivery slot as they were booked up for months and could not avoid bumping into people or at least coming into close proximity, and requiring masks made this transmission a lot less efficient.

A further reason to maintain the mask mandate is to ensure people who continue to wear masks for their own or others’ safety are not subject to harassment, much as it’s been reported that people who wear them in areas of the USA where it is not mandatory have been. Yesterday the Telegraph cartoonist Bob Moran tweeted that after the mandate was lifted, he would regard anyone still wearing one like someone wearing a T-shirt saying “I think child abuse is fine”, then justified it by claiming that children were society’s most vulnerable and Covid restrictions were harming them. This justification is, of course, wrong; although children are indeed the most vulnerable to some types of abuse, the most vulnerable to Covid infection and the most likely to get seriously ill or die, now that most elderly people are vaccinated, are the immunocompromised (such as transplant recipients) or those with weak lungs and other categories of chronically ill or disabled people, and those for whom the vaccination is counterindicated (i.e. ruled out for medical reasons). Covid restrictions and masking protects them. Healthy children are less likely to get ill, although some in fact do and some develop rare complications and others develop long Covid, but the rules are designed mostly to protect vulnerable adults. Moran later tweeted:

Every one of these claims is nonsense. Babies see their parents’ faces while at home, and even while in the street, as the mask mandate does not apply in the street (unlike in much of Europe). It also does not apply when someone is talking to a deaf person, adult or child. We do not “treat children like walking biohazards” any more than we do each other; when a virus is on the loose that can easily be transmitted from person to person, we all have to restrict our contacts with others and keep our distance when doing so. Masks actually do not restrict most people’s breathing, and those it does that to are exempt; children are also exempt. The virus itself is what caused harm to children; lockdown (the ‘LD’ he refers to) was necessary to slow the spread of the virus, and to stop hospitals becoming completely overwhelmed as had happened in Italy early last year. Sometimes, protecting everyone results in emotional harm to some, including children. It’s unavoidable.

And yes, right now, most of our elderly have been vaccinated. But most young people have not been, and many people in their 40s have had only one dose (as I have). There are still those who cannot be vaccinated for various medical reasons. The vaccines are not 100% effective and there is evidence that they are even less effective against the delta variant; another variant of concern currently is the lambda variant, originating in Peru, which has been recorded in the UK. The numbers of deaths are nowhere near the level they were in January, but today 37 new deaths and 118 new admissions to hospital were reported (the rolling averages for the past week or so have been between 16 and 18 daily) as well as nearly 29,000 new cases. Just because deaths are not in the thousands (yet) does not mean we should have to just live with it and not take reasonable measures to minimise the death toll. Continuing to wear masks in indoor public spaces is a reasonable measure. We do not need a lockdown, right now, but we do not need to end a practice that keeps transmission low in high-risk locations such as supermarkets.

And this brings us onto my last point: some people have been conflating taking reasonable measures to stop the spread of the virus such as masks, and reducing risk to zero with unreasonable measures; the difference between seatbelts and speed limits on one hand, and banning driving on the other. The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, was quoted as saying “I don’t think any avoidable deaths are acceptable”, which some leapt on as advocating the latter approach. An avoidable death is a term that means a death that could have been reasonably prevented: for example, when a person in a hospital who has epilepsy insists on having a bath, he should be supervised to make sure he does not have a seizure and drown. If he is not, or the people who were supposed to be supervising him decide to slip away and order a pizza or do the weekly Tesco shop, and he drowns, this is a classic avoidable death. (This really happened.) There are unreasonable measures inflicted on patients in some hospitals to prevent self-harm or other injury, which might be the equivalent of imposing a Spanish- or Italian-style lockdown in Britain now.

In the first wave of the lockdown, official statistics showed that nearly 60% of people who died with Covid-19 were disabled. In any forthcoming wave, that percentage, even if not the absolute number, is likely to be higher because most elderly people have had both their vaccines and younger people are still exposed. Many disabled people feel that the government, media and society do not regard their lives as being as of as much importance as the economy and the right not to wear a mask for the short time they do their supermarket shop. Removing a small number of mild restrictions at a time when infections are rising exponentially is not only stupid but shows contempt for the lives of disabled people and for all their family members. Think it’s child abuse to expect a child to wear a mask? Causing the death of their mother because you don’t think people should tolerate mild inconvenience to save others’ lives causes a much greater deal of emotional harm than that.

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