Those clinging to their masks will continue to point to “the science”, which has been increasingly on their side as the pandemic has progressed and more data has been gathered. The US Centers for Disease Control now dedicates a page of its website to assembling the many studies that show that “following universal masking, new infections fell significantly”. These include a randomised control trial, which scientists consider to be the gold standard of research, as well as enquiries into that most sensitive of subjects – masks in schools. One found that “outbreaks were three and a half times more likely in schools without mask mandates”.
As Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health services at the University of Oxford, notes: “Wearing a well-fitting, high-filtration mask (such as a FFP2) does three things: it reduces emission of viral particles from the wearer; it protects the wearer against viral particles suspended in the air; and it sends a message to others that we care about them and are taking the pandemic seriously.”
Which is all very well, but – as those who have grown sick and tired of masks will point out – practically no one wears a well-fitted mask, and fewer still wear high-quality “filtering face pieces” (FFPs) of the kind that are legal requirements in Germany and elsewhere.
Indeed, as we have come to realise that Covid is spread mainly not by relatively heavyweight droplets, but by miniscule particles floating in the air, the shortcomings of loose-fitting cloth coverings, which cut risk of contagion by half or so, have become obvious. Blue surgical masks, which offer increased filtration, are better, but being baggy are still far from perfect. In hyper-cautious Australia, data scientist and mask researcher Jeremy Howard now advises people to “ditch your cloth masks, and also ditch your surgical masks”, in favour of top-notch FFPs. If you really want to stop omicron, he reckons, a wobbly scrap of material is not going to cut it.
Short of such determination and such high-grade kit, it is Greenhalgh’s third reason for mask-wearing that will endure in Britain: “It sends a message to others”. For some, that message is one of reassurance, of making a thoughtful, if futile, gesture, like the diners who, having eaten a long meal unmasked in a crowded restaurant, then strap on a mask to go to the loo.
But there are many other social signals that mask-wearing sends, says Fiona Woollard, professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton, who specialises in the ethics of doing or allowing harm. “There’s the virtue-signalling, where you do the right thing but are loud about it,” she says. And then there’s a sense of belonging mask-wearing can bring. That can cut both ways, she notes: “Some people object to wearing a mask, but are happy to wear a mandatory blazer and tie at a club.”
Because, now that they aren’t mandatory, masks are likely to signal membership of political clubs here, just as they do in the polarised US, where they have become as much a token of party affiliation as a Make America Great Again cap.
They will be added to the list of items – from hats to long dresses – which in the past were inherent signs of social status and mores, and which explains why, says Woollard, “we have long rebelled against being forced to wear certain items of clothing”.
Ultimately, she suggests, the fate of masks will rest on the shifting balance of risks and burdens they encapsulate. If the danger of Covid plummets, the burden of mask-wearing, even if small, starts to outweigh it. “Everything we do presents some risk to other people,” she says. We still drive, even though it may result in the injury or death of another, because the cost of giving it up is so huge. But the balance can shift, as it did with smoking. “Eventually, we decided that the freedom to go out and enjoy your meal without passive smoking was greater than the freedom to enjoy an after-meal cigarette.”