One of the major frustrations throughout the COVID-19 crisis has been the failure of high-profile journalists to ask ministers and SAGE scientists challenging questions about the rationale for their – often unprecedented – decisions. When they were not baying for earlier and harder restrictions, the journalists who participated in the numerous coronavirus press conferences typically restricted themselves to questions seeking clarification about the detail of a new rule or imposition rather than imploring the experts to justify the reasoning that led to their non-evidenced diktats.
I am sure I’m not alone in fantasising about the sort of questions I would like to put to the key rule-makers responsible for this extraordinary two-year assault on our basic human rights. Consider, for instance, Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, and his belated support for requiring people to wear masks in community settings, arguably the most insidious of all the COVID-19 restrictions.
This is not an academic issue. Thanks to the Government’s relentless messaging about the purported benefits of face coverings, there is a real danger that widespread community masking – with all the attendant physical, social, psychological and environmental harms – could become a permanent feature, at least in certain sections of our society.
Prof. Whitty’s track record on the contentious issue of masking healthy people is, like that of many of the high-profile political and scientific rule-makers, characterised by contradiction. In early March 2020, he unequivocally stated that healthy people should not be wearing face-coverings. One month later, he was faltering, saying that, “The evidence is weak, but the evidence of a small effect is there under certain circumstances”. Since this time he has supported – or, at least silently colluded – with the pro-mask lobby. What changed his mind? No robust evidence supporting mask efficacy emerged in spring 2020, nor any time since, so what ‘nudged’ him to relinquish his anti-mask stance?
To clarify the reasons for his change of mind, I would be keen to be given the opportunity to ask our Chief Medical Officer the following questions:
- Around April/May 2020, what piece of robust real-world research made you change your mind about the ineffectiveness of masking healthy people in the community?
- As late as December 2020, a WHO document concluded that: “There is only limited and inconsistent scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of masking healthy people in the community.” Do you agree with the BBC Newsnight reporter Deborah Cohen that the WHO’s U-turn on masks was likely to have been the result of political lobbying?
- With regard to the imposition of masks, what has been the specific rationale offered to you by the Government’s behavioural scientists, such as Professor David Halpern?
- Is it merely a coincidence that masks powerfully help enforce the main ‘nudges’ promoted by behavioural scientists to achieve compliance with COVID-19 restrictions?
- Do you agree that the most robust type of scientific evidence is that provided by real-world, randomised controlled trials? If so, how can you reconcile your promotion of mask wearing with the results of such trials that consistently show that masks do not significantly reduce the transmission of respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2?
- Do you agree that, in a democratic free society, the evidential bar for mandating an intervention (such as masking the healthy) should be set very high? If so, do you believe that the empirical evidence for the benefits of masks as a means of reducing viral transmission reaches this threshold?
- There are a wide range of harms (physical, social, psychological and environmental) associated with masking healthy people, including the maintenance of inflated levels of fear that will have contributed significantly to the tens-of-thousands of non-Covid excess deaths and the current mental health crisis. Do you believe that a marginal reduction in viral transmission can compensate for this extensive collateral damage?
- If the Government’s behavioural scientists had not promoted masks as a way of increasing a sense of ‘solidarity’ that encouraged general compliance with the COVID-19 restrictions, can you confirm whether you would have changed your advice?
Growing numbers of people would like to hear Whitty’s answers to these important questions. Given the opportunity, I would be very happy to directly put them to our Chief Medical Officer in a public forum. Failing this, maybe a high-profile journalist will rise to the challenge. Ah, we can but dream.