My stepson, Arthur, had just turned 15 when the pandemic seemed to be approaching the U.K. in early 2020, and was wryly amused by discussions of it around our dinner table: “Just carry on… they’re blowing it out of proportion… if it looks like they’re closing schools, we’ll book a holiday until it blows over.” He might have been a little perplexed when, in March, I pressed ahead with my intention to keep things as normal as possible for our children, still inviting grandparents over and positively insisting on get-togethers with friends – and, of course, the Girlfriend. As with most things in his life, Arthur quietly and readily acquiesced.
In October, he might have been baffled when, as a second national shut-down seemed imminent, we extended our holiday in Devon to eke out a few more days of freedom. In January 2021, he merely raised an eyebrow when the announcement came that he wouldn’t be sitting GCSE exams, shrugging it off as an ideal outcome for him, hoping that his teachers, suddenly determining his grades, would look upon him favourably.
You see, he’s a very easy-going teenage boy. He’s blond with blue eyes, very handsome, thoughtful, funny and kind. And he has struggled, since the age of three, with a stammer, which varies from relatively minor difficulties with certain sounds on one day, to being utterly unable to produce words on another.
So he might have been concerned when, in summer 2020, we returned from a holiday abroad to find the whole country suddenly covering its collective face everywhere it went, the first mandate of its kind having been introduced here. I was very well-prepared: I swotted up on the Government website as to how exemptions worked, and immediately (and not without legitimacy) exempted myself, with my wife quickly following suit. Many countries simply didn’t allow for exemptions, and in some sort of Covid perversion of Stockholm syndrome, I felt a degree of gratitude to the U.K. for its history of caring for the vulnerable, of tolerance, and of respect for others. U.K. law, I later discovered, regards a stammer as a disability, in regard to the somewhat serious matter of discrimination in the provision of goods and services, in the Equality Act of 2010.
In practice, of course, this exemption thing was much harder than it sounded, and the black and white, plain, hard fact of legally backed exemption contrasted wildly to our new reality: my wife and I faced dirty looks, hostile and aggressive challenges, and a creeping, pervasive sense of wrongdoing everywhere we went. Friendly, local supermarkets employed not-too-friendly bouncers, high street boutiques suddenly became quite choosy about their customers, councils took on Covid marshals who pulled us to one side, the Government told us we were granny-killers. Previously sane, sensible people – friends, academics, scientists for God’s sake! – paraded around the place, just like that, with their faces covered, seemingly without question or pause.
For Arthur, understandably lacking the hardened scepticism and insouciance of his stepfather, it might have been some sort of living hell. This boy, this adolescent, teenage boy, struggles to speak sometimes, and now it seemed like the whole country wanted him to put a cloth over his mouth, and, what’s more, would treat him like dirt if he didn’t.
Then, next up, face coverings were ‘recommended’ in schools by the DfE, with a terminology and a force that made even this pedant doubt his own understanding of the word. And so, as I wrote at the time, clamouring and failing to be heard:
Binding children’s faces for five or more hours per day, and surrounding them with a sea of bound faces, surely only adds to the overwhelming sense of hazard and danger already caused in schools by cancelled exams, prolonged closures, ‘bubbles’, hand sanitising stations, dramatically altered timetables, one way systems and barriers, a total collapse of routine and predictability, and much more besides. To foist face coverings upon children when transmission in schools is apparently not disproportionate, when young people are frankly unthreatened by the virus, when there is no evidence that face coverings reduce transmission, and when the DfE simply “recommend” it, is heinous. I see little difference between that and making them tie their germ-spreading hands behind their backs. I am sickened by it, and it is beyond my understanding that parents, teachers, politicians and wider society seem so unperturbed by it all.
One doesn’t have to be an expert in the complexities and precious fragilities of oral communication to figure out that strapping an obstacle over the mouth will not be conducive to the physical and mental effort it can take a stammerer to form clear and fluent sounds. Arthur understood Covid as well as anyone, he understood his own difficulties, and he chose to exempt himself, which we squarely supported. There were times when, to avoid conflict, he did cover his face, and we supported him in that too. He was, remember, a schoolboy, only 15 years old. He came to understand, unlike so many others, and in stark contradistinction to his new, everyday experiences, that the law was in fact on his side, and perhaps to take a little comfort or strength from that.
At other times, though, he was intimidated by a bus driver who, well after the mandate had been lifted, exploded in fury at him, pulling the bus over to leave the driver’s booth and yell at him in front of his college peers and other members of the public. He was refused entry to McDonalds – in town, with his mates – by a staff member who was simply applying her own rules (or those of the company?) by just not allowing him access to the restaurant; he unintentionally hesitated when attempting to explain his exemption to her, and she interrupted, flatly refuting it. His Sixth Form college pressed on and on and on with its rules that he hourly prove his exemption by wearing a lanyard, in flagrant contradiction of Government guidance, until, finally, my wife felt driven to threaten them with future legal action for stigmatising him and damaging his mental health. The head backed down – but only for our son, not on the policy itself. How could it be that so many employees in so many organisations still acted as though they had no clue about the details of exemptions, which I had found out for myself online in minutes?
Ours is not the kind of family that discloses and dissects every single feeling. But I know that my stepson’s stammer can cause him frustration, upset, embarrassment and distress. I know that there are circumstances he sometimes avoids putting himself in, or has found ways to work around. I can well believe that, in a world of ubiquitous face coverings, he experienced heightened nerves and anxiety of some situations, that there were times over a two and a half year period when he decided not to go to that event, or see those people, or do that thing. Well – thanks everybody; very well done.
I don’t need an expert to tell me that face coverings are worse than useless. Nevertheless, when a SAGE adviser went on the record against the efficacy of them in July 2021, I hoped we might see the back of the objects of my disgust: “Imagine marbles fired at builders’ scaffolding, some might hit a pole and rebound, but obviously most will fly through.” Few adherents seemed even to flinch. Some openly celebrated face coverings as a symbol with which to promote fear. And thus it was, presumably, that face coverings were reintroduced to schools in January 2022, still without a shred of evidence that they reduce transmission at all, never mind amongst children crowded together in busy classrooms.
My sorry conclusion is that this country, which made a great deal of noise about youth mental health in the years preceding the pandemic, does not give much of a damn about my stepson – or indeed anyone else with any kind of communication difficulties. Or, for that matter, about young people. I therefore continue to wait patiently for one of two outcomes, some hard evidence perhaps, which will guide us one of two ways into our glorious post-Covid landscape: either face coverings are a big enough success to warrant the total disregard of the communication difficulties of a sizeable chunk of the population, or they are so pathetically, criminally useless that we can actively recommend against them in the future. Neither Arthur nor I will hold our breath.
Fraser Krats is a secondary school teacher.