Covid-19 has caused chaos for me over the past month, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’ve got children in primary school, work as a GP – and yes, I do see most of my patients face-to-face – and I’ve had to leave my safe little corner of rural Wales a lot recently, for a party, a course and a wedding.
One striking thing, especially going across the border into England, is how people’s habits around mask wearing vary so dramatically in different settings.
We know that Covid is an airborne virus, so it seems completely sensible that wearing masks when we’re indoors with other people should be normalised. It certainly has become so in most other parts of the world, but somehow, in the UK, nothing is so straightforward.
Travelling through England last weekend on a packed train, windows closed and steamy, I noticed that only a handful of passengers wore masks. We loosely clustered together at one end of the carriage.
For all the debate about mask mandates and hype about ‘freedom day’, the UK population is still quite uninformed about some of the most important basic facts about masks.
There’s a growing body of evidence that says mask quality is important. An FFP3 mask, which seals on the wearer’s face, is better than an FFP2, which is fitted but not sealed. Below them come surgical masks, and then cloth masks.
I rarely see anyone wearing an FFP2 or FFP3 in any setting, and yet, if you or your immediate contacts are clinically vulnerable, that would be one of the best interventions within your power, after vaccination, to reduce your risk. I’ve yet to find a brick-and-mortar pharmacy or shop selling them, although you can order them easily online. And at this stage in the pandemic, there shouldn’t be any supply problems. You won’t be depriving a health worker or carer. Only the UK’s inadequate PPE guidance does that.
Counterintuitively, when something is worth doing, it’s also worth doing badly. In the same way that brushing your teeth for 20 seconds is better than not brushing them at all, a person wearing some sort of mask some of the time is better than none at all.
And the more you do it, the more benefit you get. In the context of a pandemic, if we want to get our rates down, it’s probably better for lots of people to do a half-hearted job of it, than only a handful of people to do it really well. That’s why we need to work hard to normalise mask wearing across as many indoor settings as possible.
At my cousin’s wedding, I was the only person wearing a mask. I went for a black cloth one which didn’t detract from my outfit. In the lovely, spacious, high-ceilinged hotel it felt like a safe compromise. Several people told me they’d planned to wear one themselves, but didn’t feel brave enough or want to stand out. Removing the mask mandate from social settings appears to have actually made those people feel less free to protect themselves and their loved ones.
In parliament, Jacob Rees-Mogg expressed a health belief which would be quite quaint if it wasn’t so dangerous to the general population: that the ‘convivial, fraternal spirit’ between him and his fellow Conservatives would somehow protect them from giving each other coronavirus.
The message that masks aren’t necessary between friends makes it harder for those who want to take the logical step of wearing one when they meet indoors to socialise. Care Minister Gillian Keegan’s reference to masks as a ‘sign of virtue’ adds yet another psychological barrier. Who wants to be seen as a neurotic, unfriendly virtue-signaler?
If public health departments and Government are serious in wanting to control the pandemic and avoid further lockdown, it shouldn’t be beyond them to create a marketing campaign that makes mask wearing more attractive. To give wearing a mask a different meaning than the one it has currently. We need to normalise mask wearing across as many different settings where people share air as possible, like most of the rest of the world.
The strongest argument I can think of is: Mask Up! Everyone’s doing it.
The Doctors’ Association U.K. encourage you to share your #maskup photos on social media – follow us on Twitter @theDA_UK and Instagram @thedoctorsassociationuk
Read the original piece in Mail Plus here