The Great Mask Divide: Will You Be Mask On Or Mask Off After July?

Boris Johnson is set to announce that wearing face coverings will become a 'personal choice' next month, but many are concerned it's too soon.

Woman wearing mask

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

Today, Boris Johnson is expected to announce that face coverings will no longer be compulsory in a news conference at 5pm today. With government ministers confirming that plans to lift all social restrictions are going ahead as planned on the 19th July, the idea that people will be binning their masks in a mere two weeks is causing massive debate online.

The news was confirmed by housing secretary Robert Jenrick, who told BBC’s Andrew Marr that when all legal restrictions are lifted this month, the decision to wear masks will become a ‘personal’ one. While he chose not to confirm whether or not masks will be required in certain settings, he said ‘the prime minister will make an announcement in the coming days - it does look as if the data is in the right place.’

The Scottish government have since said there is actually an ‘ongoing need’ for masks, and the British Medical Association has urged the UK government to maintain requirements on masks when lifting other restrictions.

NHS England's medical director, Professor Stephen Powis, told the BBC that if some people continued to wear face masks in certain circumstances, such as crowded places, then ‘that's not necessarily a bad thing’. When asked about his own mask use, he said he ‘might choose’ to continue wearing a face covering, adding that ‘those habits to reduce infections are a good thing to keep.’

While various advisors seem to be expressing caution at the way in which we lift the rest of the lockdown rules, the government appears to be taking an either/or approach. In a column for the Daily Mail, health secretary Sajid Javid said that ‘cases are going to rise significantly’ when we lift lockdown entirely, but that ‘no date we choose will ever come without risk’.

How must the vulnerable, the non-jabbed, single jabbed, key workers, pregnant women be feeling right now?

Ultimately then, it feels as though the government are throwing caution to the wind, and rather than finding a middle ground in easing certain restrictions but maintaining others, they’re sticking to their roadmap regardless of the fact that half of the UK is yet to be fully vaccinated – and cases are continuing to rise dramatically.

It’s with that in mind that many are cautious about removing their mask entirely, whether the governments tells us we can or not. ‘How must the vulnerable, the non-jabbed, single jabbed, key workers, pregnant women be feeling right now?’ asked actor Adil Ray on Twitter. ‘Would you use public transport/visit busy supermarkets if masks aren’t part of health guidance? I’m so sorry if that is you. Many of us will do our very best to protect you.’

‘As a clinically extremely vulnerable person, I'm so nervous about freedom Day,’ artist Katy Lancaster added. ‘It's a jail sentence for me and others like me. I won't be able to go anywhere while I know most won't be wearing masks or taking any precautions to keep safe. I beat cancer, I don't want the risk of covid.’

They raise an important point, notably that mostly women – who are more likely to wear face coverings statistically – will bear the burden of the government throwing caution to the wind. According to The Health Foundation, who analysed NHS data to understand the needs of the most clinically vulnerable to Covid-19, more women were asked to shield than men. While the difference was marginal (with age the biggest point of difference) when your account for pregnant people and the fact that women aged 18-35 are the least likely to receive the vaccine - because of the governments mishandling of fertility concerns, of which there are none – it’s clear women may be the most cautious about removing their masks.

It should be noted that pregnant people are no more likely to catch coronavirus than other healthy adults, with most experiencing no symptoms at all when they do. However, due to the studies showing that they may become severely unwell if they catch Covid in the third trimester, pregnant people are included in the list of those at moderate risk.

Ultimately, what all this goes to show is that the mask on mask off debate is not something we can easily cast aside with claims that ‘everyone should just do what they’re most comfortable with’. That appears to be the strongest argument for those determined to mask off, but it’s just not that simple. It might be a personal choice for many, but those clinically vulnerable, pregnant or yet to be double-vaccinated do not have the privilege of feeling fearless without a mask.

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