My first thought when I saw pictures of the Prime Minister strolling maskless through a hospital yesterday? ‘There’s a man who thinks rules don’t apply to him’.
For Boris Johnson to turn up and not wear a mask on a visit to Hexham General Hospital in Northumberland was nothing more than a kick in the teeth to the thousands of NHS staff who do so daily. Indeed, the healthcare workers who he met on the visit were all wearing masks. His lack of respect was captured in a picture of him meeting three masked nurses as he joked around elbow bumping the no doubt astonished staff.
Considering he ended up in intensive care with Covid-19 last year, why is it that he shows such craven disregard for a virus that could have killed him? The hospital’s rules could not be more explicit: ‘Anyone attending our hospitals and community settings must continue to wear a face-covering at all times to protect patients, visitors and staff.’
But what did we expect? Johnson couldn’t be bothered to turn up to Sage meetings at the beginning of the pandemic, ripped up all forms of mitigation on ‘Freedom Day’ in July – even as cases were rising – and has failed to take any action against any of his colleagues, such as Jacob-Rees Mogg, who fail to wear a mask. Is it any wonder there’s been an outbreak of coronavirus in the House of Commons? The fact of the matter is that the rules on personal protective equipment have not changed, but to Johnson, it’s all a big joke.
I am of the view that his sloppy leadership and negligence has arguably led to thousands of avoidable deaths – but then his behaviour is identical to Donald Trump, who while President, refused to wear a mask in a PPE factory. It seems unbelievable that we’ve still not learned the lessons of basic infection control in this pandemic, nearly two years in. Look at our European counterparts such has Macron or Angela Merkel: both are never seen without a mask in public.
In the first six months of the pandemic, my 25-bed neurology ward had more deaths from Covid than that experienced in the entire population of Taiwan in the same period where airborne pandemics such as Covid or SARS are treated with the gravity they deserved. Obviously, the vaccines have made a big difference, but the Delta variant is much more transmissible so using the right kind of masks is also key – especially in a hospital setting where both staff and patients are vulnerable.
My colleagues in the Doctors’ Association UK have been highlighting the importance of staff having access to the best-quality PPE from the start of this pandemic. Rightly so, when more than 1,000 NHS and social care workers have died from Covid. From the beginning, we were told by Johnson that ‘we were following the science’, yet his own behaviour and that of his colleagues exhibits the exact opposite.
Last month, in an article in the respected academic journal Science, experts presented evidence that mandatory mask wearing and social distancing on public transport in rush hour in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, reduced infection rates by 93 per cent and 98 per cent respectively. Then again, in South Korea, there is much more widespread use of higher-grade masks even on public transport, better than those most NHS staff use.
Wearing a mask to reduce the risk of spreading Covid should become like taking an umbrella with you when it looks like it could rain. We need to normalise this. Such that the behaviour of Johnson or Rees-Mogg should seem as embarrassing as someone who turned up for a speech with his fly undone or as repugnant as someone who goes to the bathroom without washing their hands. Which ends with my final point: why did the staff not challenge him? If any visitor turned up on my ward without wearing a mask, I wouldn’t let them in – Prime Minister or not. You actually follow the science or you get out of my ward. We should stop tolerating rule-breakers – because stupidity will be the death of us.
Dr David Nicholl is a consultant neurologist based in Birmingham and a committee member of the Doctors’ Association UK which has a #MaskUp campaign
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