Today the government has said that for the next three weeks it will be mandatory to wear masks in shops and on public transport, pending a review.
It was already mandatory to wear a mask on the tube, as a condition of travel. So to avoid mixing up ideas, let’s focus on the new mandate from the government: that people will have to wear masks in shops. Imposing a requirement that anyone entering a shop must wear a mask, whether the shop wants to accept them or not, is a straightforward imposition on human liberty.
We have accepted huge infringements upon our liberties over the past 21 months. We did so initially because there was an emergency situation, with a risk that the health service would be swamped, leading to hundreds of thousands of people dying unnecessarily for simple lack of treatment. Later we did so to buy time for the vulnerable to be vaccinated. These restrictions were then phased out gradually over a few months. Perhaps the phasing out was a bit slower than necessary, but the basic concept of a phasing out period was not in itself illegitimate.
Now, however, there is no longer an emergency. As Chris Whitty himself said in today’s press conference, the only group of people which are seeing cases rising are small children (specifically, this is the under-10s). Cases amongst the elderly are falling (as the effects of boosters kick in) and cases amongst the rest of the population are essentially flat (and have been since early August). It is realistically no longer possible for cases to rise exponentially for an extended period, as happened in February to March 2020 and in late 2020. And in particular not amongst older people at risk of being hospitalised by the disease. There is no longer even the remotest risk of the NHS being swamped.
Absent any emergency justification, the imposition on the public is simple tyranny. If the government had suddenly declared, in mid-2018, that it was making masks mandatory in all shops for no better reason than this might cut down on respiratory illness a bit, would you have complied? Of course not!
In Britain it has long been understood that there is a basic threshold of natural justice or necessity for something to be a law. There can be good laws and bad laws, but if a purported law does not meet a required threshold of justice or necessity, it is not truly a law at all.
A key reason Britain has not fallen victim to the tyrannical governments seen in other countries is that Britons have refused to accept laws that lacked sufficient natural justice or necessity. By refusing to comply with them, and being backed in that to a greater or lesser degree by the courts, they have forced the government to back down.
A famous example of that is the case of Clarence Harry Willcock – the last man the government attempted to prosecute for refusing to carry an ID card. Mr Willcock said he did not believe in such things. The judges heavily criticised the government for maintaining ID cards long after their initial justification (the second world war) had ended. And the government backed down and abolished them.
To be clear, I don’t mind wearing masks. I wear them on the tube. I wear them at church (where that is still our practice). And I have worn them in shops when I was finishing recovering from a cold, just in case I was still infectious. Some people say there is no evidence that masks cut transmission. I disagree. I think there is strong evidence masks cut transmission to a small but material extent.
So my objection isn’t that I find masks unpleasant or consider them ineffective. It isn’t even that I won’t ever wear them. My objection is that it is not legitimate for the government to instruct British people to be masked when there is no emergency justification for doing so.
Some people suggest the measure is something to do with the Omicron variant. But the government quite candidly accepts that at this stage there is no good evidence either way on that. We don't know if this variant escapes the second or third doses of the vaccines at all (it probably escapes the first dose but so what?). We don't know if it’s more or less or equally severe as the Delta variant if you catch it. We don’t have the slightest reason to fear it escapes the serious disease protection of the vaccines or previous infection.
It is not legitimate to restrict our liberties in this way ‘just in case’. There needs to be certainty or near-certainty of disaster (in the way there was in March 2020) before it is legitimate to blight everyone’s lives. ‘Just in case’ is not good enough.
The coronavirus emergency is over – and it has been over for months. There is no plausible justification for introducing mask mandates at this time. And since mask mandates belong to that class of infringements upon liberty that can only be legitimate if there is an emergency, we should regard them as illegitimate.
I refuse to accept that there is truly a law requiring any of us to wear a mask in a shop. And – taking our cue from Clarence Harry Willcock – we should all refuse to comply with this illegitimate edict until the government backs down or shows that there is indeed some emergency that could justify such a law.