In our supposedly liberal and transparent democratic country, it seems that it was a group of remote and unnamed scientists, outside of the formal SAGE infrastructure, who effectively imposed masks on British citizens. Were they well-meaning academics offering their expertise, or conflicted ideologues engaged in a global endeavour to control the masses? You decide.
The volte-face on mask recommendations and regulations by the U.K. Government and its public health experts in 2020 is one of the many unfathomable policy decisions we witnessed during the Covid era. Within little more than a month, our ministers, senior scientists and medical leaders flipped from a stance of repeatedly imploring us all not to wear a face covering in community settings to a totalitarian one of imposing mask mandates. Who was primarily responsible for this remarkable U-turn?
Based on the recent revelations from former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, it seems that the political whims of Dominic Cummings (former Government advisor) and Nicola Sturgeon (First Minister of Scotland) may have been influential. Nonetheless, the quirks of political figures are unlikely to have been sufficient to achieve a mask U-turn, and support from expert scientific advisors would have been necessary. Which academics performed this role of mask enforcers? Astonishingly, a thorough exploration of SAGE minutes – and the compilation of a decision-making timeline – during the prelude to this policy reversal implicates an obscure multi-disciplinary group most of us will never have heard of: DELVE, which stands for Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics.
What the experts believed prior to March and early April 2020
In the early spring of 2020, the public health experts spoke with one tongue. Here are a few reminders of their collective wisdom:
In terms of wearing a mask, our advice is clear: that wearing a mask if you don’t have an infection reduces the risk almost not at all. So we do not advise that.Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer (March 4th 2020).
“For the average member of the public” masks “are really not a good idea… people can put themselves at more risk than less… you can actually trap the virus in the mask and start breathing it in.Dr. Jenny Harries, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer (March 12th 2020).
The global evidence is masks in the general population don’t work.Professor Jason Leitch, Scotland’s Clinical Director (April 3rd 2020)
We do not recommend masks for general wearing.Professor Jonathan Van Tam, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer (April 3rd 2020)
The experts were so clearly united in their anti-mask stance that, around this time, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) banned the advertisements of two companies because of spurious claims that their face coverings would protect against coronavirus. This intervention by the ASA won the unequivocal support of Professor Stephen Powis (NHS Medical Director) who said, “Callous firms looking to maximise profits by pushing products that fly in the face of official advice is outright dangerous and has rightly been banned.”
Clearly, mass-masking requirements were not being considered at this time. So what happened next?
The lukewarm phase: April 7th-20th 2020
In the aftermath of the all-too-brief period of sanity – when the wearing of face coverings in community settings was recognised as ineffective and likely to do more harm than good – SAGE undertook a period of information gathering, probing the academic landscape, seemingly in search of a justification for widespread masking. Two weeks into the first lockdown, maybe they were harbouring a thirst for more restrictions or simply reacting to pressure from the media to ‘do something’. However, the expert feedback they received between April 7th and April 20th was generally lukewarm about the potential value of pushing masks on healthy people.
A report (dated April 7th) from UNCOVER – a group based at Edinburgh University – concluded from its evidence review that, “Wearing face masks in the community was not significantly associated with a reduction in episodes of influenza-like illness” and that, “Mask wearing alone, in the absence of other preventative measures, is unlikely to be effective.” The SAGE minutes of the same date also refer to the work of NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) who had apparently stated that “increased use of masks would have minimal effect (in terms of preventing the uninfected general population from becoming infected)”.
Given this converging advice that masks constituted a poor viral barrier, did the SAGE experts now accept that no further mask policies were indicated? No: two days later – as recorded in their minutes of April 9th – SAGE asked for more information, and requested that NERVTAG produce another paper on masks, “including any behavioural aspects” (emphasis added) associated with them, “drawing on SPI-B as necessary”. The membership of NERVTAG included staunch Covid-restriction advocates such as Professors Neil Ferguson, Malcolm Semple and John Edmunds. The SPI-B (the behavioural science subgroup of SAGE) would have recognised the potential power of masks to ‘nudge’ people into compliance with public-health diktats. If you were intent on seeking validation for masking people in the community, one might expect these two groups to deliver.
But, perhaps surprisingly, both NERVTAG and SPI-B remained unconvinced about the net benefits of the routine wearing of face coverings by healthy people.
In the NERVTAG paper dated April 13th, titled “Face masks in the community” the overarching conclusion was: “Overall there is insufficient evidence to recommend universal use of face masks in the community.” Specifically, they summarised their policy options as:
- Universal face masks in the community: NOT RECOMMENDED
- Facemasks for all for short periods of unavoidable close contact: PERMISSIVE
- Face masks in community for vulnerable individuals for short periods: RECOMMENDED
So apart from those with significant existing vulnerabilities, these experts were opposed to mandating the generalised masking of the populace. The main SAGE minutes of April 16th reflect this conclusion, reiterating the finding that, “Evidence from RCTs are inconclusive regarding the protective effects of face masks when worn in household or community settings”, and raising additional concerns about community masking, including: supply constraints; the practicability for transport and shop workers to wear masks a whole day; and the potential to increase complacency around other restrictions (such as social distancing). Intriguingly, after echoing these research results and their reservations about imposing further mask requirements, an addendum to SAGE’s April 16th minutes commits to providing revised mask guidance by week commencing April 20th. Furthermore, within this addendum, there is an explicit action for the Chief Medical Officer to produce “a summary of recommendations on wearing face masks drawing on evidence synthesis from DELVE” [My emphasis]. Maybe they were already aware of the pro-mask cavalry coming over the horizon?
Meanwhile, the behavioural science ‘nudgers’ in the SPI-B group published their paper on April 20th in which they highlight the potential for both benefits and negative outcomes of recommending masks in the community. Predictably, they promote face coverings as a way to “demonstrate that an individual is concerned about other people’s welfare and is enacting desired social norms” – an effective enforcer of the ‘ego’ and ‘normative pressure’ nudges, to use the language of behavioural science. But, in addition, they draw attention to some of the undesirable implications of mask mandates, including the “negative evaluation and harassment of people who are not wearing face masks, leading to division which could undermine collective solidarity”. So this was far from a resounding endorsement of face coverings in the community.
Then along came DELVE.
DELVE: The mask enforcers
On April 21st 2020, DELVE submitted a paper to SAGE titled, “Report on face masks for the general public”. Given the strident pro-mask content and tone of this review – in stark contrast to previous analyses from other sources – it is reasonable to propose that this group of academics, remote from the mainstream Covid decision-making apparatus, was primarily responsible for forcibly muzzling the British people.
Citing a ragbag of highly selective laboratory and observational studies, along with wild overestimates of the degree of asymptomatic transmission and a corruption of the precautionary principle (assuming the intervention is the safe, default position), the DELVE group clamoured for the general public to cover their faces with plastic and cloth. Their intent was clear from the first sentence of their report:
Face masks offer an important tool for managing forward transmission of COVID-19 within the general population.
The core of DELVE’s flawed rationale is to ignore the consistent findings of randomised controlled trials that community masking achieves no appreciable reduction in viral transmission, ignore the widespread harms associated with mass masking, and to then make three implausible assertions:
- Assertion 1: As many as 80% of infectious people do not have any symptoms. This largely reflects a failure to recognise that an asymptomatic person who tests positive is not necessarily infectious; indeed, research suggests people without symptoms contribute very little to the propagation of a pandemic.
- Assertion 2: Droplets constitute a major mode of transmission. Yet there is a growing consensus that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is mainly spread by microscopic aerosols, so to expect face coverings to act as a barrier is like expecting a tennis net to be impermeable to sand.
- Assertion 3: Face masks reduce the spread of droplets. Even if they do, the invalidity of the two previous assertions renders this one largely irrelevant.
Based on this triad of false assertions, DELVE determined to influence national policy by proclaiming that, “Widespread use of surgical and homemade face masks among the public can have a significant mitigating effect on the spread of COVID-19”. On the back of the DELVE report, other groups with histories of pushing for tougher restrictions joined the clamour to mask the U.K. For example, a paper from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine reported that – based on their own modelling, no less – high compliance with face coverings could achieve a “modest impact” on viral transmission. On April 21st, the SAGE minutes included a statement that, “There is enough evidence to support recommendation of community use of cloth face masks.” Subsequently, on April 25th, the British Medical Association urged the Government to mandate masks for the general public when outside of their homes.
Predictably, the Government acquiesced. Commencing on June 15th 2020, masks were sequentially mandated on public transport, indoor retail and leisure facilities, and – shamefully – in schools. Failure to acquiesce to this state coercion put British citizens at risk of fines, exclusion from work and participation in everyday life. People were habitually harassed and vilified for opting not to cover their airways with cloth or plastic. Based on the timeline described above, it is reasonable to conclude that DELVE was primarily culpable for the imposition of a restriction that was both ineffective and harmful, as well as a gross infringement of basic human rights and freedoms.
But what is DELVE, this obscure group spouting half-truths and driving the mainstream mask narrative?
DELVE: membership and affiliations
DELVE is an initiative convened by the Royal Society (a U.K. scientific academy, “dedicated to promoting excellence in science for the benefit of humanity”). This learned society with such a lofty aim describes DELVE as, “A multi-disciplinary group… to support a data-driven approach to learning from the different approaches countries are taking to managing the pandemic” (sic). Apparently, the work of this group has been “discussed with and welcomed by Government, who have arranged for it to provide input through SAGE”. I do not recall this arrangement being shared with the British public at a Whitty and Vallance press conference in 2020, but maybe I missed it?
The Royal Society has been staunchly pro-restriction throughout the Covid era, and its commitment to mask coercion is demonstrated by its hosting and promoting of DELVE’s policy-changing output on its own website on May 5th 2020. True to form, the Royal Society followed this up with its own strongly pro-mask paper on June 26th 2020, within which they lauded particularly the value of masks in conveying psychological messages that promote general compliance with restrictions, lending further weight to the premise that face coverings were imposed mainly as a method of people control rather than to limit viral spread. By July 10th 2020, Venki Ramakrishnan (the Royal Society president) was telling the Guardian that “refusing to wear a mask in public during the COVID-19 epidemic should become as socially unacceptable as drink driving or not wearing a seatbelt”.
Inspection of the individuals involved in DELVE is also informative. Perusal of the membership list of its “Steering Committee” – “a high-level expert group to oversee the work and communicate findings to the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor and his networks in Government” – reveals that many have close affiliations, not only with the Royal Society, but with other pro-restriction and highly-conflicted organisations such as the Wellcome Trust and Imperial College London (the latter being the home of the arch-modeller, Professor Neil Ferguson). Members include: Devi Shridar, Professor of Global Health at Edinburgh University, holder of a Wellcome Trust investigator award, Founding Director of the Global Health Governance Programme and with previous involvement in the World Economic Forum Council on the Health Industry; Demis Hassabis, an expert in artificial intelligence whose stated mission is to solve “the problem of intelligence” and then to use AI “to solve everything else”; and Daniel Kahneman, Professor of Psychology at Princetown University and world-renowned behavioural scientist. So these are some of the scientists who decided that the British people would be coerced into wearing face coverings: a media darling of the lockdown-and-jab-them approach to pandemic management, a fervent advocate of transhumanism, and an American ‘nudger’.
Plainly, it was not only the unaccountable scientists at SAGE who directed policy throughout the Covid era. Regarding mask decrees, the hidden technocrats at DELVE played a central role in compelling us all to cover our faces in community settings. In a purportedly democratic and liberal society, should anonymous influencers – prone to bias and corruption – be making decisions that intrude into all our lives? I think not.