On December 22nd 2022, the Daily Sceptic published an article I wrote titled, ‘The Shadowy Group that Brought Mask Mandates to the U.K.’ Attempting to explain the reverse ferret in May and June 2020 by ministers and Government scientists about the benefits of masks in the community – flipping from discouraging their wear to mandating them – the article pointed an accusatory finger at an obscure multi-disciplinary group called DELVE. Drawing on information from Smile Free’s mask timeline (reproduced in part below), the article detailed how, on April 21st 2020, DELVE produced a paper championing face coverings for healthy people in community settings that – with the support of the zero-Covid ideologues at the Royal Society – resulted in the Government U-turn. Ten months later, the testimony of Professor Peter Horby at the COVID-19 Inquiry has now endorsed our account of one of the most ignominious events of the pandemic.
Horby is a Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health at the University of Oxford. During the Covid event he was the chair of NERVTAG, a high-profile group of scientific experts who routinely provided advice to SAGE. He appeared before the COVID-19 Inquiry on October 18th 2023. In response to questioning from Andrew O’Connor (Counsel to the Inquiry), Horby first confirms the weakness of the evidence in support of masks as a viral barrier:
NERVTAG had looked at the issues of face masks in the past… and had taken quite a stringent scientific view that the highest quality evidence is randomised controlled trials… and those data were fairly clear… that the evidence was weak. And we maintained that position on how we saw the evidence, focusing on the data from randomised controlled trials.
When Lady Hallett (the less-than impartial Chair of the inquiry) interrupted, saying, “I’m sorry, I’m not following, Sir Peter. If there’s a possible benefit, what’s the downside?” Horby responds:
The downside is that you are making a population-wide recommendation based on weak evidence which may weaken trust in your scientific independence and integrity.
Subsequently, when Mr. O’Connor KC suggests that it was NERVTAG’s advice that subsequently led to the Government imposing mask mandates, Horby fully corroborates our Smile Free account of events:
Well, I would say it wasn’t just on the basis of NERVTAG, and I think this was – you know, this is an example of effective challenge where the Department of Health or SAGE commissioned other expert groups to look at the data. The Royal Society and the DELVE group produced a paper, and also there were some other groups that looked at the data. So there was an attempt to get differing scientific views of the value of it, and it was those, all of those inputs I think that changed the position, not just NERVTAG.
We’ve reproduced the timeline from 2020 here. Judge for yourself:
January 22nd 2020: British Government holds first Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to discuss emerging spread of coronavirus. Minutes from the meeting show not a single mention of face masks or coverings.
March 4th 2020: England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty tells public not to wear mask: “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.”
March 4th 2020: The U.K.’s Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) bans advertisements by two companies for claiming face masks could protect against Covid. The ASA says the adverts were “misleading” because the claims went against official advice.
A spokesman said Public Health England informed the ASA “that it does not recommend the use of face masks as a means of protection from coronavirus”. “We understood there was very little evidence of widespread benefit from their use outside of clinical settings,” the ASA said in a statement, adding that “prolonged use of masks was likely to reduce compliance with good universal hygiene behaviours” like frequent hand-washing.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS Medical Director, comments: “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.”
March 8th 2020: In U.S., Dr Fauci tells a TV show: “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask. When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better, and it might even block a droplet, but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is, and often there are unintended consequences: people keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.”
March 11th 2020: Dr. Jenny Harries, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, tells Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a TV interview that wearing face masks is “not a good idea” and “could increase risk of infection… you can actually trap the virus in the mask and start breathing it in”.
March 23rd 2020: U.K. enters lockdown.
March 26th 2020: The World Health Organisation (WHO) tweets: “If you do not have any respiratory symptoms… you do not need to wear a medical mask. When used alone, masks can give you a false feeling of protection and can even be a source of infection when not used correctly.”
April 3rd 2020: England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van Tam tells a televised briefing: “We do not recommend face masks for general wearing.“
April 3rd 2020: Professor Jason Leitch (Scotland’s Clinical Director) makes an unequivocal statement that, “The global evidence is masks in the general population don’t work.“
April 6th 2020: WHO publishes new guidance stating “the wide use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not supported by current evidence and carries uncertainties and critical risks”.
April 7th 2020: SAGE meeting reports that NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, an expert committee of the Department of Health and Social Care) had concluded that “increased use of masks would have minimal effect (in terms of preventing the uninfected general population from becoming infected)”.
April 7th 2020: ‘Rapid review on face masks for the general population‘ paper for the British Government finds “mixed and low quality evidence on use of face masks to prevent community transmission of respiratory illnesses”.
April 9th 2020: SAGE asks NERVTAG to produce another report on masks for the next SAGE meeting, “including any behavioural aspects related to the use of masks”.
April 13th 2020: NERVTAG publishes its new report, called ‘Face masks in the community‘, which concludes “overall there is insufficient evidence to recommend universal use of face masks in the community. In the short term, widespread community facemask use is likely to have a significant impact on the ability of the NHS to purchase sufficient masks for health care workers”.
April 16th 2020: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tells ITV that wearing masks would be “counterproductive… the suggestions people would make their own masks, whether it’s clothing and that sort of thing which doesn’t really provide that much protection. Secondly, the way people take it off can sometimes do the reinfection. Thirdly it can provide a false sense of security.”
April 16th 2020: A SAGE meeting is presented with NERVTAG’s ‘Face masks in the community’ report for decision on community-wide use of masks. SAGE commits to producing “revised advice on masks in the week commencing April 20th”.
April 20th 2020: SPI-B (sub-group of SAGE providing behavioural science advice) submits paper to SAGE on effectiveness of masks in community settings. There is no strong endorsement of masks and indeed many concerns are raised, including “touching facemasks when wearing them or taking them off and putting them on surfaces after taking them off, all of which could contaminate hands and fomites and lead to viral transmission”, “people may feel falsely reassured by wearing facemasks and so pay less attention to other behaviours that reduce viral transmission”, and “consideration of an ‘exit strategy’ for masks – determining and articulating at what point would they no longer be recommended?”
April 20th 2020: Steven Riley of Imperial College submits a paper to British Government, noting “direct use of evidence from influenza household studies for SARS-CoV-2 suggests low efficacy for face covering”.
April 21st 2020: DELVE (Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics, an initiative of the Royal Society) submits ‘Report on face masks for the general public to SAGE‘ asserting “face masks offer an important tool for managing community transmission of COVID-19 within the general population… face masks, including homemade cloth masks, can reduce viral transmission”.
April 21st 2020: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) submits a computer modelling paper to SAGE entitled ‘The possible impact of mask wearing outside the home on the transmission of COVID-19’. It says the results of its modelling “suggest that mask-wearing may have a modest impact if compliance is high”.
April 21st 2020: SAGE meeting minutes now state “the evidence on effectiveness of masks for source control is weak… advice below refers to cloth masks – specifically in context of releasing lockdown measures… on balance, there is enough evidence to support recommendation of community use of cloth face masks, for short periods, in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not possible”.
April 23rd 2020: U.K. Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance tells a televised briefing that “the evidence on masks has always been quite weak, quite variable… there’s no real trials on it”.
April 23rd 2020: Health Secretary Matt Hancock tells a televised briefing “the position on face masks is unchanged”.
April 24th 2020: Health Secretary Matt Hancock tells LBC “the evidence for the use of masks by the general public, especially outdoors, is extremely weak”.
April 25th 2020: Trade union the British Medical Association appears in press calling on Government to “explore the use of face masks in public”, stating “all key workers must get masks and public should cover their faces”.
April 28th 2020: SAGE agrees to update minutes of April 21st 2020 meeting “to clarify its advice on face masks, to include the line ‘the RCT (Randomised Control Trial) evidence is weak and it would be unreasonable to claim a large benefit from wearing a mask’.”
April 28th 2020: Matt Hancock tells a televised briefing that “on face masks, we are guided by the science, and the Government position hasn’t changed… not least because the most important thing people can do is the ‘social distancing’.” In the same briefing a spokesperson for SAGE says “the answer is clear that the effect (of masks) is weak and the evidence is small”.
May 5th 2020: U.K. Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance now tells MPs masks could have “marginal but positive impact”.
May 11th 2020: Government plan “advises” public to “wear face coverings in crowded places and wash their clothes regularly”.
May 27th 2020: In the U.S., Dr. Fauci tells CNN: “I wear it for the reason that I believe it is effective. It is not 100% effective. It’s sort of respect for another person and have that other person respect you.”
May 27th 2020: Stephanie Warriner is choked to death by hospital guards in Toronto, Canada, for wearing a Covid mask “too low”.
June 4th 2020: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announces that “face coverings” – “not surgical masks – the kind of face covering you can easily make at home” – will be compulsory on public transport from June 15th, on pain of fines up to £100. “We’re doing what many other countries have asked transport users to do.” A Freedom of Information later reveals this decision was made based on no peer-reviewed scientific evidence.
June 5th 2020: Government announces that effective June 15th, staff will be required to wear surgical masks – and visitors and outpatients “face coverings” – in all NHS hospitals.
June 5th 2020: In a “significant change of stance” WHO now advises public to wear face masks.
June 8th 2020: Trade union the British Medical Association now calls for “compulsory face masks” in GP surgeries.
June 12th 2020: Cabinet office Minister Michael Gove, appearing on the BBC, says masks should not be made compulsory in shops.
June 26th 2020: The Royal Society issues a report claiming “cloth face coverings are effective in reducing source virus transmission”. Addressing the lack of clinical trials, it notes: “There have been no clinical trials of coughing into your elbow, social distancing and quarantine (either), yet these measures are seen as effective and have been widely adopted.”
June 28th 2020: According to Isabel Oakeshott, co-writer of Matt Hancock’s book, “an ‘obsessed’ (Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister) Dominic Cummings (had been) the driving force behind mandating mask-wearing in all healthcare settings – and then in retail and hospitality. On June 28th he messaged Hancock to complain that the Government was being insufficiently ‘aggressive’ on the issue and demanding that they be compulsory in shops and for restaurant staff.” In general “Hancock, Whitty and Johnson knew full well that non-medical face masks do very little to prevent transmission of the virus. People were made to wear them anyway because Dominic Cummings was fixated with them; because Nicola Sturgeon liked them; and above all because they were symbolic of the public health emergency.”
July 7th 2020: The President of the Royal Society tells 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”, and “called for everyone to be required to wear a mask in all indoor public settings, rather than only on public transport”.
July 10th 2020: In a report for BBC Newsnight, science reporter Deb Cohen states “The debate is deeply political. Newsnight understands that the WHO committee that reviewed the evidence for the use of face coverings in public didn’t back them, but after political lobbying, the WHO now recommends them.”
July 12th 2020: BBC journalist Cohen repeats her claim on Twitter. Some time later, the tweet was deleted.
July 14th 2020: Matt Hancock announces that face masks will become compulsory in all shops from July 24th, on pain of fines up to £100.
July 15th 2020: Press reports claim that “Government insiders suggest masks would become part of the new normal until the country was through the pandemic and possibly until a vaccine is developed”.
August 25th 2020: According to Matt Hancock’s diaries, English schoolchildren are ordered to mask in communal areas and on school buses just “to avoid a big spat with the Scots”. “Nicola Sturgeon blindsided us by suddenly announcing that when schools in Scotland reopen, all secondary school pupils will have to wear masks in classrooms. The problem is that our original guidance on face coverings specifically excluded schools… nobody here wants a big spat with the Scots. So, U-turn it is.”
August 26th 2020: On the U-Turn on masking English schoolchildren, U.K. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson tells BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We always listen to the best scientific and medical advice.”
August 29th 2020: Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Jenny Harries says evidence that masks stop the spread of coronavirus is “not very strong in either direction“.
November 19th 2020: Professor Carl Heneghan and Dr. Tom Jefferson’s article ‘Landmark Danish study finds no significant effect for facemask wearers‘ is published in the Spectator; it is subsequently labelled “false Information” and censored by Facebook.
December 1st 2020: New guidance from WHO states “there is only limited and inconsistent scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of masking healthy people in the community”.
Dr. Gary Sidley is a retired NHS Consultant Clinical Psychologist and co-founder of the Smile Free campaign.