The economic case for ditching mask mandates

6 July 2021

8:04 PM

6 July 2021

8:04 PM

After many months of hardship and sacrifice, freedom is finally within grasp. Boris Johnson has reclaimed his buccaneering, libertarian spirit and punctured the hopes of zero Covid zealots who wanted more working from home, social distancing and masks.

When it comes to face coverings, however, lockdown fans have been working hard to convince the public that they ought to wear them voluntarily — on the off-chance they have the virus and unwittingly hop on to a tube carriage with the unvaccinated. Are they right?

Masks are undeniably inconvenient. They’re a pain to wear and a nuisance if forgotten. They reduce the ability to communicate, interpret and mimic the expressions of those with whom we engage. And they act as a constant, crushing reminder that the roaring twenties were over before they began.

But rightly or wrongly they also hastened a reopening of society. Lockdown critics objecting to them on civil liberties grounds last year was almost as inconsistent as government ministers breaking the rules they enforced (I said almost). By summer 2020, in contradiction to advice previously issued by the hapless World Health Organization, the prevailing view was that they could obviate the need for renewed shutdowns that would hammer the economy. The Economist described them as a ‘cloth of gold’ with an economic value of £40.

This is patently no longer the case. Their efficacy is uncertain and often disputed — one meta-analysis found that the relative odds of infection among groups using paper masks were 39 per cent lower than in the no mask group. But opponents would counter, for example, that there is no obvious difference in outcomes between US states that have mask mandates and those that don’t.

We simply don’t need a one-size-fits-all regulatory approach to manage the risks associated with Covid-19. Despite the alarming surge in cases following the arrival of the Indian variant on UK soil, 15 people died from Covid on Sunday. In the past week, 122 people have succumbed to the virus, down two on the previous week.

Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham may like masks because they deem them fairly harmless economically. That is certainly true if compared to lockdowns. There are, however, plenty of people who won’t do anything if it requires wearing a face covering. How can you possibly gauge whether an item of clothing is a fashion fail or a stylish win if you’re trying it on in PPE? Who wants to sit in the cinema for hours in a mask?

Shops, cafes and gyms have all been reducing the number of customers who can enter at any given time and enforcing mask rules. We may find them a faff, but there are industries that view them as a threat to the bottom line. Back in April, the National Hair and Beauty Federation warned of extra costs related to safety precautions, including face visors, disposable gowns and sanitising chairs between appointments. Their thin margins were laid bare when these businesses said they would be tipped into the red if they didn’t hike prices to make up for social distancing, decreased capacity and fewer potential customers.

They’ll have greeted Monday night’s press conference with a sigh of relief. Over the past 16 months, authoritarianism has gripped government, parliament and public agencies, leaving its prey unable to think beyond shutdowns. But policymakers are now bopping to a new beat. No longer will the state dictate what we do: individuals will be presented with the risks and left to exercise their judgment.

That, of course, involves the freedom to wear a mask voluntarily, or for businesses to require them upon entry. But government is, at last, doing away with policies so riddled with inconsistencies and absurdities that business owners found them near-impossible to navigate, often opting for the safest (most draconian) interpretation. Wimbledon staff wear coverings while spectators are mask-free. Pub-goers have to use a face covering to nip to the WC but not at their tables. Gym-goers cannot leave their workout boxes without a mask on, though within it they’re chastised for not panting heavily enough. An end to this farce cannot come soon enough.

Masks are props to remind people that there’s a crisis. As the crisis has receded, so should requirements on masks.

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