Last week I was in Waitrose, doing my food shopping. Bare-faced and mask-free, I spied an old friend. As I wheeled my trolley over to her, smiling, our eyes met for a millisecond, before she looked off in the other direction and scurried off, disappearing – pink mask and all – into the frozen food aisle.
I’m finding uncomfortable incidents like this are becoming increasingly common, ever since masks were made voluntary back in the summer. What could have been a freedom day of sorts rapidly turned into a moral maze; with “to mask or not to mask” becoming one of the most divisive of all pandemic restrictions. A new survey shows that some older people even say they are restricting social mixing because of a “selfish” lack of face coverings, with many pensioners backing the return of mandatory masks.
Why are they blaming me for how they feel? I for one punched the air when I could finally tear off my mask. I find them insufferable; the way they fog up your glasses, turn into soggy germ-infested mulch within minutes, and make you feel trapped in a claustrophobic hell.
Even the experts cannot agree on how effective they are. One study (a meta analysis of other studies, published in the British Medical Journal) found that non-pharmaceutical measures, such as mask-wearing, handwashing and social distancing, can reduce Covid infections. By pooling the findings from the six studies which looked specifically at mask-wearing, researchers concluded that wearing a mask can cut Covid incidence by 53 per cent.
Yet a growing number of scientists are beginning to question the efficacy of mask-wearing. Think tank The Cato Institute has published a critical review of the evidence for face masks to prevent the spread of Covid. Its analysis of mask-wearing studies concluded that “examination of the efficacy of masks has produced a large volume of mostly low- to moderate-quality evidence that has largely failed to demonstrate their value in most settings”.
I am not an anti-masker. Like most people, I happily complied when it was mandatory. I caught Covid badly last year and so was extra vigilant; scrubbing my hands until they were raw and Dettol-gunning my entire flat. We were all terrified of the enemy lurking in every breath or brush-past.