LONDON – Britons, a people famously reluctant to appear ragged in times of need, have slowly, if not at all, encountered masks during the coronavirus pandemic. Jim Williams says that people in his hometown, Newcastle, even shouted at him and shot him angry when he wore one.
“Britons would rather be sick than embarrassed,” said Williams, 31, adding that his own family had rejected masks he bought for them. “We are all very busy doing what others do and do not want to be seen as hysterical or ridiculous.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who rushed to reopen Europe̵
Many researchers have found that the silence over the face coatings is mystifying and anxiously reminiscent of Britain’s delay in introducing a lockdown in March, part of a laissez-faire approach to the pandemic that has drawn intense criticism. In March, Mr. Johnson Britain “a land of freedom” when he opposed following countries across Europe to lock in. He himself later became seriously ill from the virus.
Britain now has the third highest death toll in the world from Covid-19 – more than 50,000 of one official set, and about 45,000 of another – behind just the United States and Brazil. Researchers say the Conservative government’s slow reactions have claimed thousands of lives.
The reversal over face masks, which will take effect on July 24, draws England in line with other European countries, such as Germany, Italy and Spain – France plans to make them mandatory in closed spaces on August 1 – and with Scotland, which is part of the United Kingdom but sets its own health policy. About half of the US states require masks in some public spaces, but the rules vary widely.
Britain has largely avoided the partisan debate over masks that has confused the United States. Instead, the government’s reluctance to give them a mandate stemmed from internal debates among scientific advisers about the usefulness of the worms, and an obvious concern to ensure that a resource that was inadequate was used where it was most needed.
But on Tuesday, there were hints of an American-style gap in the issue.
In an almost empty lower house, Conservative lawmaker Desmond Swayne on Tuesday counted on what he called “this monstrous imposition on myself and a number of outraged and reluctant elements.”
“Nothing,” he said, “would make me less inclined to shop than the thought of having to mask up.”
Police also failed to be asked to enforce the new rules by imposing fines of up to £ 100, or $ 125, with an officers’ union calling it “unrealistic and unfair” to expect them to patrol shop passes.
For stores that had already told customers to wear masks, the demand came as a relief. Just as the government’s slowness in imposing a closure in March had forced decisions to close individual citizens and shopkeepers, so its reluctance to make a rule on face masks had left people and businesses struggling to chart their own paths.
“Obviously the pandemic is not over, and we really only wanted to open up if we could keep everyone as safe as possible,” said Gayle Lazda, a bookseller at the London Review Bookshop in central London, who has been wearing masks since it reopened this month. “Just like before the lockdown occurred, we closed the store because it seemed like the only sensible thing to do.”
Some researchers have been appealing to Mr. Johnson’s government to follow the growing evidence that masks can help stop the spread of the virus. But the government opposed it, with England’s deputy chief medical officer saying on April 3 that “there is no evidence that the general wearing of face masks by the general public well affects the spread of the disease in our society.”
As recently as April 28, the government’s powerful scientific advisory group for emergencies retroactively edited the minutes of a previous meeting, emphasizing that “it would be unreasonable to demand a major benefit from wearing a mask.”
The advisers’ concerns reflected what critics called an overly rigid approach to science. The advisers stressed the lack of evidence from randomized controlled trials, a bar that outside researchers said was impossible to meet, especially given the difficulty of measuring how a person’s mask can protect countless others.
“Some researchers believe that a very high level of safety is required before the public is advised to wear a mask or other behavior that would reduce the transmission of disease,” said Paul Edelstein, a professor of emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, who helped write an influential report. to British scientific advisers encouraging face coatings this month.
Masks have been mandatory for public transport in England since mid-June, and the government had previously encouraged – but not required – masks in enclosed spaces. But the minutes from their meetings show that the government’s scientific advisers guessed about the possibility that masks make people more willing to leave home with symptoms or break social distance measures.
Trisha Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care at the University of Oxford, published an analysis on April 9 asking the government to consider how little there was to lose, and how much to gain, from encouraging the widespread use of masks. She said in an interview that the issue required considering a wider range of evidence than some researchers were trained to trust, such as studies of super-scattering events on cruise ships.
“They are creatures of their own upbringing,” she said of some of the government’s scientific advisers. “They have many intrusive assumptions about what counts as rigor, and so science is not really accurate.”
Britain was far from alone in distrustful masks. Not knowing the extent of asymptomatic transmission, researchers in the United States and with the World Health Organization were also slow to encourage their use, said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, a scientific body in the United Kingdom.
But Britons proved particularly slow to voluntarily adopt masks, with only 21 percent of people saying they had one in public, according to an analysis by YouGov published in June.
That put Britain far behind almost all of Europe, Asia and America. Even in France, which has not yet demanded masks in stores, 79 percent of people had them, YouGov said. 69 percent of Americans did.
In addition to discomfort, the British complained in surveys that they felt self-conscious, stupid and embarrassed in masks. It partly reflected what Peter York, a prominent social commentator, described as a long-standing aversion – especially among the upper classes – to appear ragged by illness or discomfort.
“There is a class-based idea that everything for valetudinarian, for visible hygienic, is middle-class,” he said, using a long word to be unnecessarily worried about one’s health. “It’s a kind of bravado thing in the English upper class, that it’s stupid to be insanely hygienic.”
For Ayla Hogg, 22, who has long been wearing a mask around her village in Scotland, the introduction of a nationwide mandate in recent days was a consolation after months of worrying reactions to her mask.
“You have people who consciously avoid you and you feel very self-conscious, like I might overreact to this,” she said. “British people are extremely difficult at the best of times. Going against the norm is very, very odd, and it makes you feel like an outsider. “
Aurelien Breeden and Emma Bubola contributed with the reporting.