James Forsyth

Will making face masks compulsory help us get back to normal?

Will making face masks compulsory help us get back to normal?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Picture credit: Getty
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The government will announce today that from 24 July face coverings will be mandatory in shops and supermarkets. Those who don’t wear one risk a hundred pound fine.

This decision is partly about reducing the spread of the virus – in a shift from the beginning of the crisis the government now thinks masks are effective in this regard, but also about giving people the confidence to go out. The argument goes that if we know everyone will be wearing a mask, so are less likely to spread the virus, when we go to the shops, we’ll be more inclined to head to the high street and spend money. I can see this case. But there is also a risk that the fact everyone is wearing masks will make people less inclined to go out, by emphasising how far from normal things still are.

Much of the government’s problems on masks stem from the fact that it was too quick to dismiss the idea of wearing them at the start of the crisis. It feared that suggesting they would help could lead to a run on medical-grade masks, compounding the government’s PPE crisis. As a result, mask wearing hasn’t caught on here in the way that it has in other countries; the level of mask wearing in Britain is considerably below even the European average.

One other thing to note about this decision is that it is the first time in this crisis that the UK government has followed the Scottish government: face masks are already compulsory in Scottish shops.