Wear a Mask, Mr. Sunak

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, who is usually one of the more sensible and articulate members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet, announced a series of measures to try to get the economy up and running. For the hospitality sector, including restaurants and pubs, these include the reduction of VAT from 20% to 5% and instituting a scheme in which customers could get up to £10 off their meals at participating restaurants. As part of the announcement, he made an appearance at a Wagamama in London, talking to staff and serving customers their meals:

The first thing I thought, and I was evidently not the only one, was “Where’s his mask?” The government “guidance” is that anyone working in the restaurant who cannot practice social distancing should wear a mask. Yet, no one in that Wagamama was wearing one. You can see kitchen staff in the background preparing food without masks, and none of the servers or hosts are wearing them. This is not a good photo op for someone who is trying to open the economy. Where better to transmit the virus than in a high-volume place where people are hovering over your food to prepare it? The problem is, I think, that the government so strongly wants to project a “back to normal” message that they are going to ensure that we cannot get back to normal. Wear masks, keep your distance, wash your hands. If you don’t do those things, the numbers will go up and you won’t be able to go out at all. Moreover, I would hope that people who watch that video would think long and hard before patronizing that Wagamama. (I won’t assume the whole chain is run this way.) I do know that our local pub, part of the Young’s chain, has decided to wait until July 20 to open and is publishing very specific plans, including face shields for servers and keeping a social distance. All of this, I would think, will be good for business. I do know that my husband and I have said that we will go to that pub, outside, during the week. If, on the other hand, I’d walked into Wagamama and seen the lack of care that went into their planning, I’d have walked out, never removing my mask.

This is not confined to the government, either. Opposition leader Keir Starmer was photographed at a Brewdog pub earlier in the week, also not wearing a mask:

This was not as egregious, since the pub was closed except for the two workers and Starmer, but think how much better a message it would have sent to be wearing a mask. Especially since Starmer’s reason for being there was to celebrate the launch of Brewdog’s “Barnard Castle Eye Test” IPA, which was named to poke fun at government chief advisor Dominic Cummings, who in May broke lockdown rules when he drove to Barnard Castle and then claimed he was doing it to “test his eyesight.” There has been a great deal of speculation that part of the reason people are no longer following government guidelines is Cummings’s refusal to admit he did something wrong. They reason that if the architects of the rules aren’t following them, regular citizens may feel that breaking the rules is not really that serious. In the midst of all of this, Starmer could have sent a much clearer message if he and the pub workers were all wearing masks or face shields except when he was at his table enjoying his beer. Even if he’d wanted to take a swig right there, the two workers, who were closer than 2 metres away from him, should have been masked.

What many people don’t seem to understand is that the countries that have had the most success in fighting the virus, including some of the hardest hit, succeeded by having strong, mandatory measures in place. They are now opening up, and still have much lower case and death ratios than the United Kingdom, and certainly lower than the United States. They also have good testing and tracing systems in place, so any local outbreaks are likely to stay local, and a willingness, apparently not so strong in the UK, to lock those places down if a spike occurs. The problems in the UK are evident in the current spike in Leicester. While the city did go back into lockdown, many scientists, and the mayor of Leicester, suggest that the UK’s creaky reporting meant that they didn’t know about the spike for about 10 days after it first occurred. This is a lifetime in the progression of a virus. But even when they did lock down, the BBC had shop owners on saying it wasn’t fair that Leicester should be “punished.” If we’re not willing and able to quickly lock down areas that have spikes, the whole system falls apart. New Zealand had three new cases (brought into New Zealand from the UK) and instituted quick and mandatory procedures. Australia, with, to date, 106 deaths due to COVID, has currently shut down Melbourne when it experienced 191 new cases in a day. In Leicester, by contrast, the city was not locked down until 6-10 people a day started being admitted to hospital, and the rate of new infections was 135 per 100,000 per day, or about 700 a day.

Before I published this post, a friend messaged me, saying masks served no function but as a sort of feel-good panacea, and what we need is more data. Well, no one who is arguing for masks would argue against needing more data. Once again, the countries that have had the best experience controlling the disease have been the ones with a real track and trace system in place.

But there is increasing evidence that masks are effective. This, of course, makes intuitive sense to people who don’t have a political axe to grind. The virus is found to spread in droplets from respiratory tracts, so coughing and sneezing are particularly good conductors, as is hand-shaking, since people are so trained to cover their mouths with their hands when they do cough or sneeze. It seems logical that you inhibit (I’m not saying stop) the droplets from spreading if you wear a mask. It seems equally logical that a mask that you’re wearing is less effective at stopping you from contracting the virus since if someone without a mask expels the droplets and they land on your mask, they have a long time to seep through and infect you.

It’s not just intuition, though. Florida Atlantic University researchers did a study of the efficacy of various types of masks and found that quilted or multi-layered cotton masks were quite effective at reducing the spread of the droplets. The University of California San Francisco provides this excellent survey of the scientific research being done on masks, and particularly the homemade cloth masks most people are wearing. If the science doesn’t convince you, perhaps the statistics will. Those countries that are already amenable to mask-wearing, like China, or who quickly adapted to wearing masks, like Germany, were far quicker at reducing the spread of the virus than were those who were mildly to greatly resistant to them, like the UK and the US.

The idea that it’s a panacea, something to make people feel like they have some control over the virus, is probably true to a certain extent, but I don’t think that’s the biggest part of the psychological effect. Let’s go back to Rishi Sunak’s photo op. I look at that picture and see people preparing food without masks. We know that reducing virus transmission requires people to behave responsibly, including keeping a social distance when possible and washing their hands well and frequently. I see people close together not wearing masks and it makes me question whether they are following any of the guidelines. If you don’t think it’s worth it to wear a mask when you are preparing or serving my food, I am less sure you are washing your hands as frequently as you should. And if your employers have not made you wear a mask, are they really on top of all the other hygienic practices that are necessary to the limiting of viral transmission? Do they enforce distancing measures between parties? Have they spaced the tables correctly? Obviously, the people behind the counter are not socially distancing. I also think there’s a psychological element to having leaders wear masks. Given the cases of COVID in the cabinet, Sunak has probably been tested, although perhaps not recently enough to ensure he is COVID-free. But let’s assume both Sunak and Starmer know they don’t have the virus. Wearing a mask is a symbol, and it shows that they really believe in what they are telling other people to do. Let’s end with a picture of another politician who understands this message. Here’s Nicola Sturgeon announcing that people will be required, not advised, to wear masks in shops as Scotland opens up—and it is opening up in some ways more quickly than England. Let’s watch the numbers over the next few weeks to see whether masks have helped the Scottish opening. I have no doubt after listening to Sturgeon that if the numbers start rising, she will shut the country back down, with far less outcry from people than we heard in Leicester.

2 thoughts on “Wear a Mask, Mr. Sunak

  1. I am always fascinated by how quickly particular “memes” (in Dawkins’ sense) spread in the bubbles. The friend you mention who served up the “panacea” idea reminds me of a meme I’ve heard in the U.S. comparing masks to the use of garlic to ward off vampires. It is one of those cases where Science Skeptics(tm) take a whiplash pro-science stance when it suits their outlook. One wants to say: “See? You CAN care about evidential reasoning when you want to!” You can also see this happen *in the same sentence* when Tr tweets about a COVID vaccine’s being imminent: statements like “Great news (Yay science!) but I am against vaccines (Boo science!)” So, when I marvel at how powerful it seems like those anti-mask talking points must be to seemingly convert people to an empirical outlook, I remind myself that contradictory allegiances can pull people in opposite directions within the very same thought.

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    1. Yes. A good example is the number of people who deny that big, non-socially distancing crowds in bars or at rallies suddenly believe that protests will increase the numbers. (And vice versa in some cases.)

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