Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Masks and freedom


The government on 19th July intends to no longer make it compulsory to wear masks that protect people from catching COVID. Instead what people do to protect themselves from COVID will become a matter of personal responsibility. It is a ludicrous decision, almost beyond belief, when cases and hospitalisations are rising and millions of people are waiting to have their second vaccine dose. (One dose of vaccine gives little protection against getting the dominant Delta variant.)

To talk about personal responsibility when answering a question about mask wearing is so utterly stupid, yet the government are persisting with it. It is stupid because the masks most people wear mainly protect others from themselves if they have COVID, and do very little to protect the wearer from others if these others are not wearing a mask. In other words most masks protect others from yourself, not yourself from others. So personal responsibility does not come into it.

Precisely because most masks do little to protect the wearer, it will be tempting for many to not wear a mask if they are not obliged to by law. That means that anywhere they go indoors will be dangerous to other people. It’s a classic reason why you need a cooperative solution enforced by the state. The law enforces a decision that most would like (a safe environment), but which wouldn’t happen through individual action.

An obvious analogy is drink driving. We don't leave how much people drink before driving as a matter of personal responsibility, allowing those without enough responsibility to crash into other drivers. Another is guns. In the UK we have laws that ban people from owning a gun. We do not say that there is no need to outlaw guns because whether you get shot is a matter of personal responsibility.

I make that last analogy because so much of what the government does nowadays comes from the worst of the US libertarian right, either directly or through newspapers. In the US compulsory mask wearing has been very controversial, with many saying it unnecessarily restricts personal freedom. But while anyone can buy most types of gun in the US, that is not the case in the UK. For similar reasons outside the right wing press and the ravings of an actor, mask wearing has not been controversial among most of the UK public. For example this poll suggests that most people think compulsory mask wearing protects them from COVID and that it should be made compulsory. Most people want compulsory mask-wearing to continue.

The government will argue that with much of the population vaccinated, allowing mask wearing to be voluntary we do little harm. We have to learn to live with COVID, they will say. But learning to live with something does not equate to ignoring it. With cases rising rapidly in yet another COVID wave, anything the government does to reduce restrictions will intensify that exponential trend. It still remains possible, if very unlucky, for those with two vaccine doses to die of COVID. It is more likely, and hardly pleasant, to be hospitalised.

However the real problems are those who have only had a single dose of vaccine (or those who have only just had two doses). They are much more vulnerable to ending up in hospital and even dying from the Delta variant. There will be millions in that position, probably over 30% of the adult population by 19th July. Why not wait until they have been vaccinated?

I have heard many people say that new admissions to hospital are low because of vaccination so there is no need to worry. But hospital admissions lag new cases by around 10 days. It is true that vaccination means the chances of going to hospital after catching Covid are now lower than they were in January, say. But if the current rate holds over the next few months then hospitalisations will no longer look so low in a month or so, at a time hospitals are trying to reduce the backlog of non-Covid cases.


Another reason to wait is mutation. The best way to get a variant of Delta that overcomes the defences of vaccines is to allow Delta to spread among those who have had one dose of vaccine.

Making mask-wearing voluntary will dent the UK economic recovery. A large number of people who don’t want to take the risk, albeit low, of catching the Delta variant will stay away from social environments where others are not wearing a mask. Environments like shops and public transport, for example. Prominent ministers in this government have never appeared to understand the point that if cases keep on increasing and no lockdown is imposed, many people will lock themselves down. The extent of this will be lower because of vaccinations, but it will not disappear.

Among those who will suffer most from making mask-wearing voluntary will be workers that have to come into contact with many people. Shop assistants, bus drivers, plumbers and the like. I can choose whether to go into a shop that has probably had many people without masks in there, but the shop worker cannot.

Why is the government doing something that is unpopular, and makes so little sense? The Prime Minister in his press briefing yesterday said if not now then when? He fears that when the summer holidays end and more people are indoors, it will be difficult to end restrictions. The obvious reply is why not end restrictions when everyone has been fully vaccinated. Everyone in this case could include school children. The truth, I suspect, is that the Prime Minister is caving into his own crude libertarian [1] instincts and pressure from his MPs and the press. He can do that because of complete self-confidence that whatever he does his media will spin it in a favourable light and the BBC will not ask any awkward questions. .

The so called libertarian right likes to talk about freedom, and in this case the freedom not to wear masks. In return for this freedom we will get less freedom for all those that want to avoid getting Covid and are forced to avoid the maskless, and those that have no choice but to do so. Those unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons, or are otherwise vulnerable. Those that get Covid (and particularly Long Covid) as a result of ending compulsory mask-wearing will obviously lose much more of their freedom. As is so often the case with this government, freedom for a few means a lot less freedom for the many.

[1] I say its crude because it sees no problem in curtailing the liberty of others, by preventing them demonstrate for example. 

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