Salvation or Suffocation – Unmasking Mandatory Face Covering In The UK

Will introducing the rule making face coverings mandatory in public save the UK from COVID-19? 

The short answer is, no, of course it won’t ‘save us’, because the issue is much more complex and multi-layered than that. In the initial stages of the pandemic we were told that if we washed our hands frequently, we would be fine. Then, we were told if we stayed at home, we would be fine. Now, several months later certain areas are back in a second, localised, lockdown to contain the infection rates of COVID-19. Furthermore, the UK government announced that they plan on making facemasks obligatory in public places, such as shops and public transport, from the 24th of July.

What was the general population’s answer to this? Outrage. Disbelief. Rejection. People outright admitting that they will not wear facemasks. They count on the fact that shopkeepers won’t be able to enforce these rules and there won’t be enough police to make sure everyone is following them. They hatch plans on how to get out of using a facemask with excuses – claims of non-existent illnesses or the use of non-appropriate materials and coverings that can be discarded as soon as the authorities are out of sight.

This, of course, is most likely not the reaction of the UK in whole, but merely the information that reached me personally. However, the scariest thing is that I live in one of those localised lockdown areas. I work part-time for a busy, fast-fashion retailer with hundreds of customers a day. So, I am beyond confused at the blindness I see every single day from people who refuse to follow these government guidelines, even though we are a hotspot for infection rates. We should be staying at home, wearing masks – not because it is mandatory, but because we are working together to slow the virus and become safe again. Instead, people are chilling outside in the sun, meeting their friends, and not wearing facemasks – not even to Tesco. 

Many mainland European countries made facemasks mandatory when the initial measures against the pandemic were put into place. Some only required them on public transport, others extended the rule to shops and other public places. The result was a slower spreading rate of the virus and probably more comfortable public workers, who didn’t need to worry about accidentally catching the virus because customers decided to ignore the government guidelines. 

The UK made a mistake when they didn’t make face coverings mandatory with the first round of the measures. It created a huge amount of confusion. You could wear a mask, but you wouldn’t get in trouble if you didn’t – which meant a lot of people (mask-sceptics) thought that the mask really didn’t make a difference. And the truth is, even while wearing a facemask, studies showed that the highest level of protection comes if both parties are wearing it.

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A cloth facemask is not solely aimed at protecting you but instead “intended to trap droplets that are released when the wearer talks, coughs or sneezes.” They are there to ensure the virus doesn’t get spread by asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals. Basically, a cloth facemask can help “if you are infected but have not yet developed symptoms, it may provide some protection for others you come into close contact with.” This type of prevention only slows the virus’s spread if it is made mandatory and everyone is wearing them. 

Surgical masks are more efficient in protecting the wearer because they filter the air, they protect “the wearer’s nose and mouth from contact with droplets, splashes and sprays that may contain.” However, they are disposable and therefore less environmentally (or wallet) friendly. If we all wear face coverings, then it shouldn’t be necessary for the public to use these masks that are originally intended for medical use only. 

There are various types of face coverings and the UK made it clear that wearing a ‘mask’ is not the only way to ensure you are following the rule. As general lockdown restrictions are loosened once again, with leisure settings reopening, performances trialled with live audiences and Boris Johnson announcing that “instead of government telling people to work from home, we are going to give employers more discretion, and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely,” it is now more pressing than ever for everyone to act responsibly and follow the remaining guidelines. Starting with putting on face covering when going to the shops.

 Words by Regina Toth

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