In everyday life, it only makes sense to initiate a new action if we are reasonably confident it will not result in more harms than benefits. The importance of this notion is amplified manyfold when it is powerful actors – politicians and their public health experts – forcing the change on their citizens. The precautionary principle (PP) in its original form endorsed this important rule and complemented the Hippocratic oath of our medical doctors to ‘first do no harm’. Yet throughout the Covid event we have witnessed a total disregard for this principle with the imposition of a series of non-evidenced restrictions, driven more by ideology than science, where the resulting collateral damage has dwarfed any benefits. One stark example – the focus of this article – has been the forced masking of people in community settings, a practice that continues in many areas of healthcare today.
The precautionary principle initially emerged in the 1970s primarily in response to growing concerns about industrial pollution from toxic chemicals. The central premise was a reasonable one: in situations of uncertainty, innovation – such as the introduction of a novel process or intervention – should only proceed if there was no reasonable likelihood of serious unforeseen harms. In effect, in situations where traditional science had not yet investigated the potential for collateral damage from a new way of doing things, the PP put the burden of proof on the innovators to demonstrate that their novel project would not cause harm. If applied to the specific issue of mass-masking during the Covid era, the experts at SAGE (and all the other multi-disciplinary groups, such as the Royal Society, Independent SAGE and DELVE, who pushed for legislation to compel us all to cover our faces) should have produced persuasive evidence that masks do no harm before making their recommendations.
Instead, those pushing the pro-mask narrative often resorted to tropes and appeals to common sense: “It’s only a mask”; “It’s not much to ask, a small inconvenience”; “If it helps a little at the margins, it’s worth it”; “What harm can it do?”
In early summer 2020, our public health experts would have recognised the validity of two assertions. First, that the scientific evidence that masks significantly reduce viral transmission was – at best – weak and contradictory. Second, that the mass-masking of healthy people across the Western world had never before been undertaken and, therefore, the potential unintended harms of such a policy were largely unknown. Under these circumstances, the original PP would have emphatically advised, “when in doubt, do nothing“: do not encourage or recommend the wearing of masks, and – most definitely – do not even contemplate mandating them.
If only, if only.
If only our public health experts had heeded this sensible precautionary message:
- We would not have stunted the social and emotional development of countless numbers of our young children, many being rendered unable to recognise facial expressions;
- We would not have contributed to the inflated levels of fear in the population, fear that discouraged hospital attendances, exacerbated loneliness, and thereby increased the number of non-Covid excess deaths;
- We would not have re-traumatised many victims of historical physical and sexual abuse, for whom the sight and feel of masks triggered disturbing flashbacks;
- We would not have excluded the hard-of-hearing (one in six of the population) from full social engagement with their fellow humans;
- We would not have polluted our environment with swathes of non-recyclable plastic and contaminated our waterways with potentially poisonous chemicals.
So why did Professor Chris Whitty (the Chief Medical Officer) and his band of academic advisors disregard the precautionary principle?
Paradoxically, the experts who pushed the pro-mask narrative often deployed a corrupted version of the PP to justify their stance. Over the past three decades, the PP concept has evolved – some might suggest it has been hijacked – and is now commonly taken to mean something very different. The re-writing of the PP gained impetus in 1992 at a United Nations General Assembly meeting where global leaders asserted (Principle 15) that: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” Further re-interpretations of the PP followed, culminating in the European Commission, in 2022, espousing the benefits of adopting the “Innovation Principle” in which “the regulatory framework supports and enables the implementation of new out-of-the-box solutions to societal problems”. This revision of the original PP has – inevitably – encroached into the public health sphere, where large pharmaceutical companies welcome the freedom to deliver their ‘innovative’ new drugs to the general population unencumbered by a pre-requisite to demonstrate that their products will lead to more benefits than harms.
The major consequence of this corruption of the PP is this: if powerful, state-funded world ‘experts’ assert that we are facing an existential threat – be it from climate change, environmental pollution or a novel virus – their recommended interventions should be implemented unless opponents of the proposed actions can prove that the likely collateral damage will significantly outweigh the claimed positive outcomes. The burden of proof no longer resides with the innovators. World governments can now impose top-down restrictions on their citizens and (so long as they claim to be acting for ‘the greater good’ or be doing the ‘socially responsible’ thing) the onus is on others to prove beyond doubt that their policies are counterproductive.
Throughout the Covid event those experts beseeching us all to wear face coverings have often relied, to various degrees, upon this warped version of the PP to support their stance. Arguably the most extreme example of an ideologically-driven imposition is pro-mask crusader Professor Trish Greenhalgh, who not only pre-emptively assumes no harms of mass-masking, but also believes that the search for evidence may be “the enemy of good policy”.
So rather than the obligation to carry out a thorough cost-benefit analysis prior to compelling us all to wear masks in community settings, our paternalistic policymakers were – with the help of the corrupted precautionary principle – allowed to fob us off with dubious claims of an existential threat, appeals to altruism and meaningless platitudes like “it’s better to be safe than sorry”.
Dr. Gary Sidley is a retired NHS Consultant Clinical Psychologist and a co-founder of Smile Free, a campaign group opposed to mask mandates.