Get Used to Them: Face Masks Will Be Around For a While Yet
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the U.K., July 19 is being called Freedom Day. To some, it will feel a bit like England winning the Euros. After 15-plus months of setbacks, uncertainty and constraints on everyday life, there will be something to celebrate: Brits can congregate without restriction and are free to bin or burn their face masks if they want. Masking up will no longer be required in public spaces or even on public transport.
But everything we know about this virus suggests proceeding with caution. Keeping a mask mandate in certain crowded settings costs little and can help reduce virus transmission, especially going into the autumn and winter. It would also reinforce a culture of safety. Instead, mask-wearing is likely to become more politicized.
It’s fine to take the calculated risk that restrictions can be lifted. As my colleague Sam Fazeli has noted, at least the government has kept the door open to reimposing some restrictions. But to talk about “freedom” is to tempt fate. Britain still has one of the highest Covid infection rates, with a 51% increase in hospital admissions in the seven days to July 4. One-third of adults are not yet fully vaccinated.
Hospitals are also struggling with gargantuan backlogs of surgeries and other treatments, a growing stream of Covid patients and high rates of burnout among doctors and other staff. One teaching hospital in Leeds recently had to cancel major cancer surgeries because the rising Covid workload has had knock-on effects. And this is happening during the summer, typically a quieter season for the NHS.
On Wednesday, medical journal The Lancet published an article by 100 top scientists arguing that the government is “embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment” in the wholesale lifting of restrictions on July 19. Such a move, they write, will allow unmitigated virus transmission, especially among unvaccinated children and young people, that will likely accelerate when schools reopen in the fall.
They warn that the government’s strategy will also encourage the emergence of new vaccine-resistant variants, placing both the U.K.’s progress and the global fight against Covid at risk. Deprived communities will be more exposed, as they have been throughout, deepening inequalities.
Although the government is justified in lifting some restrictions — data show the link between infection and hospitalization rates (and deaths) has weakened — the current policy is short-sighted and likely to lead to U-turns.
There is every possibility that SARS-CoV-2 becomes a recurrent seasonal disease. Theoretically, herd immunity can be reached when 70% to 90% of the population have sufficient antibodies against the virus, but in practice it’s harder. Vaccines aren’t perfectly effective, new variants may overcome resistance and it’s unclear how long immunity lasts.
That means we will need a menu of baseline measures to control infections, both because the pressure on the NHS (already strained before the pandemic hit) will remain too high and because the prevalence of Long Covid is a powerful argument for still trying to reduce transmission even when hospitalizations have fallen.
Some measures with little or no evidence of effectiveness — think Perspex screens and scanning QR codes when you enter a restaurant — can probably go. Masking, however, should remain for now, at least in certain settings such as public transport and large events.
Masks were adopted en masse to prevent wearers from transmitting the virus to others. Face coverings are likely to be 50% to 90% effective for smaller aerosol particles and greater for large droplets, says one paper from government scientific advisors (though much depends on the quality of the mask and the fit). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control also recommends masks in certain settings and notes evidence that they offer some protection for the wearer.
Even Israel — where experts had been claiming herd immunity — has restored its indoor mask requirement after a rise in Covid cases. New Zealand, which has near-zero Covid-19 infections, has also kept measures such as mask-wearing in place to reduce the impact of outbreaks.
Unfortunately, it seems inevitable that wearing masks will get caught up in the culture wars in Britain, as they have in America. So far, that hasn’t been the case, probably because the policy in the U.K. was clear and Britons tend to follow the rules. July 19 changes that equation. Two-thirds of Britons told pollsters they plan to keep wearing masks, but that could quickly change when others aren’t and if some politicians openly disdain the practice.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson — always wise to the public pulse and keen to burnish his libertarian credentials — has made “personal responsibility” the new watchword. The government is happy to hand the remote control back to the people, giving them the freedom to wear masks when and where they like. Normally, individual choice is a good thing; but these aren’t normal times. That language reinforces a false dichotomy between individual liberty and collective responsibility. Seatbelts are compulsory and nobody complains there’s not enough personal responsibility there.
Yes, it’s liberating to have more freedoms restored as vaccines take hold. But it’s dangerous to ignore the continued threat from the virus. We should think about the upcoming reopening as less of a definitive victory and more like getting past only one stage of a grueling competition, with a key player — the NHS — not quite fighting fit. Celebrate too long or too hard, and the next leg could be even more punishing.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.