The mandatory requirement to wear a face mask will be dropped in England from 19 July – but London mayor Sadiq Khan has said he is “not prepared” to put transport users in the capital “at risk” by removing the rules on face coverings.
Updated on 14 July: Covid-19 cases are continuing to rise across the country; indeed, on Monday 12 July, the UK reported 34,471 new cases and six more coronavirus-related deaths in the latest 24-hour period, making it the sixth day in a row where total cases have been more than 30,000.
Despite this, though, Boris Johnson has pledged to end nearly all of England’s remaining restrictions in one move on 19 July.
Speaking at a Downing Street news conference, the prime minister insisted that it is “absolutely vital that we proceed now with caution.”
“I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough: this pandemic is not over,” he said.
“This disease, coronavirus, continues to carry risks for you and your family.”
Despite his urge for caution, though, Johnson has insisted that the legal requirement to wear face masks in shops and on public transport will be lifted next week – although ministers will recommend that people apply “common sense” and continue to wear face coverings in crowded areas such as on trains, trams and buses.
It’s a strategy which has sparked fierce opposition; indeed, London mayor Sadiq Khan has asked Transport for London (TfL) to enforce the use of mask wearing on buses and trains as a “condition of carriage.”
This means that, despite the easing of restrictions on 19 July, it will be listed as a condition in a legal agreement between TfL and its customers.
Speaking to Good Morning Britain about his decision, Khan said: “Because we don’t have national backing, we’re going to make it a condition of carriage. This is an imperfect solution. We are working on passing a bylaw to make it a law, too.”
And, in a separate interview with the BBC, he added: “We know from the government’s own advisors and from the World Health Organisation, that wearing a face covering indoors does reduce transmissions. It leads to greater public safety and greater public confidence as well.
“As long as the virus is still with us, and as long as we’re still concerned about the virus being transmitted, we will make it compulsory.”
Elsewhere, Caroline Lucas, a lawmaker from the Green Party, has claimed the government is operating a “Darwinian strategy relying on immunity by national infection.”
The message on face masks on public transport, she said, had been “downgraded from being a clear legal requirement to be an optional personal choice.
“As over 100 scientists and medics said last week, this is reckless and risks driving up infection… does he realise how dangerous this is?”
Lucas’ words have since gone viral on Twitter, with many comparing them to Johnson’s insistence that “we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from Covid.”
Because, as Stella Creasy MP has asked on behalf of the nation, “Does the prime minister have a number of deaths he’s asking us to accept? The cost he asks us to pay?
“Whose balance sheet does he have in mind here in asking us to accept?!”
As reported on 6 July: Of course, Johnson previously insisted that his decision to remove the mandate on face masks is the only way forward.
“If we don’t go ahead now when we’ve clearly done so much with the vaccination programme to break the link… when would we go ahead?” he said.
“We run the risk of either opening up at a very difficult time when the virus has an edge, has an advantage, in the cold months, or again putting everything off to next year.”
Noting that his own mask wearing “will depend on the circumstances,” he finished: “What we’re trying to do is move from universal government diktat, to rely on people’s personal responsibility.
“Clearly there’s a big difference between travelling on a crowded Tube train and sitting late at night in a virtually empty carriage on the main railway line. So what we want to do is for people to exercise their personal responsibility, but to remember the value of face coverings both in protecting themselves, and others.”
As such, the wearing of face masks will become voluntary following what some press outlets are referring to as ‘Freedom Day’ – although Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has urged that people continue to don face coverings in crowded indoor spaces, when required to by an authority, or to make someone else feel comfortable.
For those who have long loathed the rules around face masks, the prime minister’s decision to move away from what he described as “government diktat” has been met with approval.
However, while these individuals have reacted to the news with joy, a YouGov poll has shown that 71% of the general public think that face coverings should continue to be mandatory, with a further 66% insisting they should still be mandatory in shops as well.
Another 70% have said, too, that they think they will feel less safe in a crowded or unventilated space once face masks are no longer compulsory.
Elsewhere, the British Medical Association (BMA) has urged the government to retain face masks on public transport and in shops, with the BMA’s council chair, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, calling for “targeted measures”, such as wearing face masks in crowded areas, to be retained.
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has also urged the prime minister to keep mask-wearing on public transport. And a number of small businesses have, too, posted tweets explaining that they will continue to expect customers to wear masks, regardless of government guidelines.
It is, undoubtedly, a divisive issue; on one side, we have those who believe that their personal freedoms are being curbed by the rules around face masks. Others, though, feel a responsibility to themselves and those around them to do so – and have expressed concern that many will not apply common sense around face coverings in the future.
It’s an argument of assumption, true, but a fair one. Indeed, the typical argument against framing risk goes something like this: assuming there is a risk, even a very small one, we should tell people to avoid it. Because, by informing them that the risk is small, we normalise their behaviour, making it seem OK.
To this end, then, will people wear face masks if they have been told that they don’t have to?
Here, Stylist speaks to those who have vowed to continue doing so even if restrictions are lifted later this month, and asks them their reasons for doing so.
“If wearing masks for another three months avoids heavy lockdown restrictions later, it’s worth it”
“I’m still going to wear a mask because it’s not just about me and how annoying I find it. It’s an easy solution that I can implement that makes a difference to the spread of disease, and not just Covid! Honestly, who would want to go mask-free on the Tube in the winter ever again? Also, with Covid cases on the rise, even with deaths down, it just seems counterproductive to stop. If wearing masks for another three months avoids heavy lockdown restrictions later, it’s worth it. Not everyone can cope with wearing a mask, but I can, so why not?”
“I’m nervous anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers will goad and intimidate me”
“I probably will wear a mask on public transport and in supermarkets, but then I probably won’t in social settings – which I guess contradicts whatever thinking is going on inside my head. But I haven’t had a cold in almost two years and I’m immunocompromised, which feels like a good reason to keep up the mask-wearing. I’m just nervous anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers will goad and intimidate me on trains.”
“This virus is still out of control”
“As a hospitality worker, I feel I have a certain amount of responsibility to keep people safe. This virus is still out of control and I’ll continue to wear a mask for as long as it takes. I hope people will do the same for me.”
“There will most likely be stigma, but I no longer care”
“Both my wife and I are still planning on wearing a mask. We’ve even considered wearing one once/if Covid goes away. I’m sure there will be some stigma in places, but I honestly no longer care.”
“I am not selfish or stupid”
“I’d wear a mask on public transport because I am not selfish or stupid! It’s a cesspit/germ pool of unventilated air. I care about my health and especially others, and there’s still a long way to go. I’ve worked a few shifts in the pandemic in a busy emergency department; if I can do 12 hours in a surgical mask with a team that have worn them for 18 months full time, a hop on the Tube won’t be difficult. Have some respect for your fellow man, their health and livelihoods.”
“We’ve done it for this long, what’s a bit longer?”
“I’ll definitely continue to wear a mask and I’m worried newly pregnant women are being completely overlooked. I’m 10 weeks into my pregnancy, and the guidelines suggest waiting until you’ve completed your first trimester before getting a vaccine, which means I won’t be double jabbed until September. I’m being cautious when I’m out and about, but I’m really worried that this announcement will change people’s mindset and create hostility. I wouldn’t feel comfortable going into the hospital for my scan if people aren’t wearing masks, for example. I also think the mask is such a cheap, easy intervention that could have a big impact – we’ve done it for this long, what’s a bit longer? There must be other groups of people who are still waiting or can’t have their jab too.”
“I’ve only had my first vaccine”
“I will continue to wear a mask, not only for my safety but for everyone else’s. I’ve currently only received the first vaccine and won’t have my second until September. For me, going without is still too risky.”
“The idea of ‘de-masking’ so soon scares me”
“I’m one of those people who were told to shield during the pandemic and even the idea of ‘de-masking’ so soon, particularly with the Delta variant so prominent, scares me. I’ll continue to wear masks like I have been doing. I only take my mask off if I am walking outside far away from everyone else or in the car. If someone is on the same pavement as me, I pop on my mask and most definitely will continue when inside supermarkets and businesses.”
“The hypocrisy is shameless”
“I find it incomprehensible that some people feel as though having to wear a bit of fabric over their noses and mouths in the supermarket or on public transport is a real threat to their personal liberty. I really, really don’t get it. Of course there are people for whom wearing a mask is distressing or painful – but for the vast majority of us, it’s an essentially effortless step that can really help reduce the risk of transmitting Covid-19.
“There’s also something grotesque about government ministers presenting the decision as to whether or not to wear a mask as a matter of individual liberty. The Conservatives literally just voted through a bill [the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill] that will make it easier for police to clamp down on protests – even allowing them to ban demonstrations by one person. So we’ll have the personal freedom to not wear a mask, but not to protest against our own government in a way they don’t like. The hypocrisy is shameless.”
“Covid hasn’t gone anywhere”
“I will 100% be wearing a mask. Covid hasn’t gone anywhere, and if wearing one is the difference between keeping myself and other people safe, then it’s a really small price to pay and something I would happily keep doing for the rest of time!”
“Now is not the time to stop wearing something that is keeping people safe”
“I will 100% keep wearing my mask after they are no longer compulsory, to protect others and myself. The government’s handling of the pandemic so far has been nothing less than incompetent compared to other countries. Now is not the time to stop wearing something that is keeping people safe and reduce any further spread of the virus.”
“It’s time to think more outside ourselves”
“I’m going to still wear a mask in certain situations – in crowded shops and definitely on public transport. I think the pandemic has made me realise quite how grim some public spaces are (I’m thinking particularly of buses and the Tube), and while I probably will stop wearing it quite so diligently in shops and restaurants, the close quarters of some situations could probably benefit from mass mask-wearing moving forwards.
“The only difficult thing is that a mask just stops you from spreading something – if someone else has it and doesn’t wear a mask, it is useless. Perhaps it’s time to think more outside ourselves – if we have a cold, wear a mask until it’s gone. I didn’t catch a cold for the entirety of the pandemic in 2020 and I think that’s because we were all a bit more on it in terms of hygiene!”
“The government is pushing responsibility onto the public”
“I’m still going to be wearing a mask and probably trying to social distance because I feel like this decision is politically driven rather than being grounded in science; to me, it seems like the government wants to appeal to those who don’t want restrictions for either economic reasons, like Tory backbenchers, or those who don’t know or care about the possibility of vaccine-resistant variants and long Covid, which isn’t really talked about or understood well enough. The government is pushing responsibility onto the public and saying that there will be more deaths to cover themselves for when some of this happens. That’s my two cents, anyway.”
“Wearing a mask isn’t a personal choice”
“I think Dr Rosena Allin-Khan put it best for me when she tweeted that wearing a mask is not a ‘personal choice’; we wear them to protect other people, and they should wear theirs to protect us. By refusing to do so, especially in a public space, we’re putting others at risk and increasing the chance of Covid-19 spreading. Why would we want to do that?”
“It’s considerate and feels safer”
“Yes, I will be wearing a mask because it’s considerate and feels safer. I don’t trust the government’s advice. Why would I? Boris Johnson has done everything wrong. Everything.”
“It’s a no brainer”
“To me, wearing a mask for a while longer is a no brainer. It’s a free (and effective) way to keep transmission down in enclosed spaces, and with cases rising, I don’t see why it’s necessary to do away with them just yet.”