Alexander Pelling-Bruce

The problem with mandatory face masks

The problem with mandatory face masks
Boris Johnson's blue mask (Photo: Getty)
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Last week the Prime Minister was photographed oafishly browsing in an Uxbridge shop, wearing a lurid blue mask. In the past, he has defended the right of people to go around looking like letterboxes; in kind we should uphold his right to go around looking like an attenuated Smurf. Aesthetic eccentricity has always been his strong suit.

Personally, I wouldn’t be seen dead in a face mask and from tomorrow will be resisting the imposition to wear one. Before you think ‘here goes another civil libertarian nutjob’ let me immediately state that the argument against personal liberty in favour of masking up is redundant. Mask advocates have used it to proclaim their righteousness whilst decrying the selfishness of detractors. But a reliance on abstraction obscures an important ethical dimension of the situation.

The government’s own guidance for shops, dated 9 July, says that ‘It is important to know that the evidence of the benefit of using a face covering to protect others is weak and the effect is likely to be small.’ Since the incidence of the virus is so low (0.04 per cent of the population as of last week and falling) to the extent that there is no longer an epidemic, the protective effect is likely to be almost zero. That is without accounting for the fact that many of the masks worn will not be of surgical grade and will not be worn properly. You don’t have to be a scientist to work this one out.

Yet Matthew Hancock has imposed the wearing of face coverings in shops by ministerial fiat under emergency public health legislation. What for? Well, as the Health Secretary stated in Parliament, it is about increasing ‘confidence in people to shop’. It is this which is so deeply objectionable. What sort of government treats one section of the governed as instruments to alleviate the fears of others?

This is not a case of the individual vs society. It is a case of the state vs society. The liberty at stake is not a personal one, but the liberty of all – masked lives and unmasked lives – to stick to a social norm.

The present circumstances mean that every handshake, every conversation at close quarters and every brush of the fingertips in the exchange of cash has felt like a victory. Physical mundanities have become minor rebellions against a state mandated contactless society. But unless you have been living under a rock or only obtain your groceries through Ocado you will have observed that life was gradually returning to normality.

Yet rather than trust the people to organically take these precautions the government has decided to micromanage the minutiae of social interaction. When mask wearing was voluntary, it could be regarded as a mark of caution on the part of the wearer. From tomorrow, it will necessarily be a symbol of bondage to the state. It is profoundly unconservative. No thanks.

Conservative leaning commentators have been straining to be charitable where possible to the Prime Minister by declining to ascribe any responsibility, as if these edicts magically waft out of Whitehall. Imagine the histrionics, however, had a Labour government introduced such a measure. ‘Spartan’ MPs would be forming rank at the hot gates of the Department of Health, heckling Jonathan Ashworth with barbs of Shelley.

Great leaders not only elevate the material condition of the country, but its moral condition also. Our prosperity has been destroyed. Our children’s education is being ruined. We have been infantilised into heroes for staying at home. We are worshippers at the altar of health, the surest sign of a sick society. Even the one virtue the Prime Minister possessed in abundance, his ability to beguile the people with language, has diminished. ‘Support bubbles’? He has become a captive mouthpiece of his single-minded scientific advisors, incapable of decision. In the words of his predecessor, ‘Remind him of anybody?’

To think that Johnson keeps a bust of Pericles on his desk. The Athenian statesman maintained his people’s ‘confidence in freedom and a frank and fearless spirit’ during a concurrent real plague and real war. Our premier has allowed fear to course freely through the gutters of our souls. Until such time as he recovers his convictions and refrains from feeding the collective hysteria of the tutting class with gesture legislation, could he please remove the statuette?