When it comes to the fraught question of wearing masks to contain the ominously high Covid-19 infection rate, it’s easy to ignore Jacob Rees-Mogg. His inane wittering about how MPs in a packed parliamentary chamber need not wear masks because they “know each other” is no less than you would expect from the leader of the Commons.
What’s much more painful is to listen to Sajid Javid, repeating as he did on the Today programme on Monday morning, that mask wearing is a matter of “personal decision”. It is quite likely that the health secretary, one of the more intelligent members of the cabinet, knows, as he toes (for now) the government line, that he is committing a gigantic category mistake.
If not wearing a mask only endangered the maskless, his stance would be fair enough. Yet the evidence shows that wearing a mask is much more effective at protecting the people around you than it is at protecting yourself.
You might just as well say that driving through a red traffic light, or breaking a 70mph speed limit, or parking on the pavement, or smoking in a crowded pub is a matter of “personal decision”. In fact, these are all forms of anti-social behaviour that democratic governments the world over have chosen to legislate against, precisely because they endanger others.
To take the well-worn Second World War analogy, it’s as if the Churchill government had said: “We think it would be better for people to black out their windows at night to confuse the Luftwaffe bombers, but at the end of the day it’s a matter of personal choice.“ Instead, of course, that government relentlessly prosecuted those who violated the blackout regulations.
In other words, if you think masks reduce infection, you should make wearing them compulsory in certain contexts, as many other countries do, Scotland included. The evidence that Javid knows this deep down lies in the actual phrasing he was honest enough to use on the Today programme, when he said: “It’s for people to make a personal decision how they view the risk for them and those around them.”
Javid admitted the central point about the anti-social nature of not wearing a mask. As well he might. A powerful graphic based on research from Johns Hopkins University in the US underlines the point. An infected person not wearing a mask has a 70 per cent possibility of infecting a person wearing a mask, while an infected person wearing a mask has only a 5 per cent chance of infecting a person not wearing a mask.
No doubt there will be disagreements among scientists about this, as there are about many Covid issues. But that’s not really the point. Whatever you think about the effectiveness of masks – and there are strong signs that they are effective – the logic is inescapable. The government has a duty to protect its citizens – as it does in so many other ways – by intervening to stop them being endangered.
To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment sign up to our free weekly Voices newsletter The Opinion by clicking here
As it happens, it’s likely that many among the large minority who do not wear masks on public transport, including on TFL tubes and buses in London where it is – theoretically – mandatory to wear one, would do so if the message from the government was a clearer appeal to altruism. It’s easy to be macho about not wearing a mask if you think the only person you are endangering is yourself, as I suspect quite a few people do, since there is little or nothing in the government’s guidelines to tell them otherwise. But that’s not enough.
Either Javid thinks going maskless does not endanger others – which flies in the face of the evidence – or he has a duty to make mask wearing compulsory in crowded places. And to enforce it.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies