July 13, 2020
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How The Government Spent Four Months Screwing Up Its Message On Face Coverings
After months of uncertainty, Tuesday finally saw the government come out with a clear line on the wearing of face coverings in shops to help fight coronavirus: they will become mandatory in England from July 24, with a fine of £100 for people who refuse to put them on.
Unfortunately, by the time the announcement came, ministers had given so many conflicting opinions on the subject that the Tories’ stance on the subject was about as clear as Dominic Cummings’ eyesight.
As recently as Sunday, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove had said it was “best to trust people’s common sense” rather than tell them what to do – but the very next day justice secretary Robert Buckland said he would support making them mandatory in public. Actually, he said he would “perhaps” support making them mandatory, whatever that means.
Hours later the PM himself appeared on live TV and said coverings “have real value in confined spaces” and that people “should” wear them in shops.The govt - & the media - have been arguing whether we should wear #facemasks for 4 MONTHS (!) & are still unable to make the obvious decision based on the science & the precautionary principle.Face masks are mandatory in 120 countries because they reduce the spread of #COVID19. https://t.co/BFHlsmsBOp— Stefan Simanowitz (@StefSimanowitz) July 13, 2020This week’s decision comes nearly six months after the first case of Coronavirus was confirmed in the UK. So what took so long?January: ‘Very little evidence’Way back in January, a blog post from Public Health England said there was “very little evidence of widespread benefit” to wearing a face mask outside clinical settings such as hospitals.
But it also said they should be considered when “visiting a busy enclosed space where you can’t social distance such as a crowded shop” in order to help stop the spread of the virus.
You read that correctly. At the beginning of the year, before even imposing a lockdown was on the cards, never mind lifting one, the government’s premier health body was offering advice that would be applicable just a few weeks later.April: ‘The science is weak’Fast forward to April 24, a month into lockdown. Health secretary Matt Hancock had changed tack and, even though the country was in grips of the pandemic, said the evidence on the effectiveness of face masks was “weak” and there were no plans to make them mandatory.
Now, it’s worth bearing in mind that at the time Hancock also had to consider the shortage of PPE that threatened the NHS. This, however, is not an issue the government currently has to contend with. Face coverings are widely available. Also April: ‘They will be useful’In case you’re under the impression that the smorgasbord of conflicting Tory opinions on face masks is a relatively recent development, then this section will knock your socks off.
Just six days after the above comments from Hancock, Johnson said “face coverings will be useful” as the country came out of lockdown both for “epidemiological reasons” and also “for giving people confidence they can go back to work”.Still April: ‘One of our most important tools’While Hancock was insisting the scientific evidence around face masks was “weak”, the actual people compiling that scientific evidence were telling him he was talking rubbish.
Jeremy Howard, a data scientist who led a global review panel on the effectiveness of masks, said masks “could be one of our most important tools”.
And if you were in any doubt about whether or not he was talking specifically about Hancock, he said: “The evidence does not show at all what he claimed.”Our team's review of the literature found substantial evidence in favor of widespread mask use to reduce community transmission, based on droplet dynamics, mask material analysis, efficacy studies, and behavioral studies. Here's our paper: https://t.co/DyVtds2sx8— Jeremy Howard (@jeremyphoward) April 13, 2020May 10: NothingOn May 10 the PM spoke to the nation and outlined “the first sketch of a road map” out of the coronavirus lockdown.
Banging his fist on the table and trying his utmost to present the clear message needed by a nation suffering after weeks of unprecedented restrictions, Johnson spoke of a fancy new alert system, unlimited outdoor exercise and the possibility of returning to work.
And absolutely nothing on face masks. It would be nice if the government was at least as concerned about our health and safety rather than just about persuading us to go shopping and to work. #Breakfast#facemasks— sarah copeland (@scmuskham) July 13, 2020May 11: ‘It may protect others’It wasn’t until the next day that the government issued new guidance that actually mentioned face coverings, suggesting they should be used in enclosed spaces such as shops or public transport where social distancing may not be possible.
The advice reads: “The evidence suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect you, but it may protect others if you are infected but have not developed symptoms.”
But it was still only a suggestion.
And in the spirit of saying you’re following the science when you’re actually not, a few weeks later it was revealed the scientists advising the government had concluded masks should be worn as early as April 21, weeks before the actual guidance was issued.June 4: ‘We need to ensure every precaution is taken’ And so the situation remained until June 4, when transport secretary Grant Shapps announced masks would be made mandatory on public transport, saying “we need to ensure every precaution is taken” on buses, trains, aircraft and ferries.June 5: ...but not in shopsJust a day later, the very same Grant Shapps insisted they should not be made compulsory in shops as they are “clearly a different environment” with people there spending less time next to each other.
At this point, British Medical Association (BMA) council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul was sufficiently worried to suggest face coverings “should not be restricted to public transport”.Also June 5: Wear face masks in shops, says the WHOThen the World Health Organisation stepped into the fray and told governments they should enforce the wearing of face coverings “on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments”.Still June 5: Wear face masks in shops hospitals, says the UKInstead of doing so, the UK government merely introduced the rule for people visiting hospitals – which a lot of people had assumed was already the case, because obviously.We now have face masks, track & trace & temperature tests for arrivals. All of which other countries did in March. I predict we will soon take people to hospital in time to treat them & use antivirals widely. By the time the pandemic ends, the govt will almost be prepared for it. https://t.co/Da6VPdFP0T— Simon Allison (@simontruetory) June 5, 2020The rest of June and the first weeks of July followed an increasingly familiar pattern of someone calling for face coverings to be mandatory in public places, and the government not making them mandatory.
There was London mayor Sadiq Khan.With lockdown easing, it's our responsibility is to do all we can to prevent a second wave of #COVID19. There’s no room for complacency when lives are at risk. That’s why I’m calling on the Government to make face coverings mandatory in all shops and confined public spaces. pic.twitter.com/s3UShdI9jw— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) June 18, 2020Leading scientists had a go.We look at health & economic outcomes of a range of targeted and untargeted testing, tracing & isolation strategies, with and without face coverings – many of which we show could suppress the epidemic whilst also avoiding significant additional lockdown time over next 2yrs. 2/n— Tim Colbourn (@timcolbourn) June 10, 2020The British Medical Association tried as well.BMA says with further easing of lockdown in England face coverings in public should be mandatory: “BMA believes face masks or coverings should be worn by the public now as a matter of course, in order to keep the risk of infection as low as possible”— Hugh Pym (@BBCHughPym) June 23, 2020Scotland, which has reported no new deaths in five days, introduced face masks in shops earlier this month. In England, however, the government response has led to a situation where the following three headlines all appeared during the last 24 hours.So who exactly is against wearing masks? Why won’t the government just tell people to put them on?
The answer appears to be no one, really. A small minority of people on Social Media are expressing outrage, but those who “oppose the mandatory wearing of face masks”...The UK govt is coming under enormous pressure to make wearing a mask when we go out compulsory, as in Scotland.But if enough of us refuse to comply the policy will be unenforceable. So let’s make our voices heard. Please retweet if you oppose the mandatory wearing of face masks— Neil Clark (@NeilClark66) July 8, 2020... tend to be the same people who think the virus has “petered out” and the whole pandemic is just “Project Fear” (it hasn’t and it isn’t).No I’m not. You seem to have bought into Project Fear sadly. It’s July. The virus has petered out. There’s no need to make mask wearing compulsory. If you want to wear one, up to you but we shouldn’t be forcing people to wear them in the current circumstances.— Neil Clark (@NeilClark66) July 10, 2020I really don't understand why people would rather help spread the coronavirus, kill more people & collapse the economy rather than put a fcuking mask on their face for a while. #facemasks#gove— Martin in Yorkshire (@martinradio) July 13, 2020Related... The Psychology Behind Why Some People Wear Face Masks – And Others Don't Opinion: Brits Are Selfish – Is It Any Wonder We’re So Reckless With Masks? 'Work From Home If You Can' But Also 'Come Back To Work', Says Robert Buckland
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