For those of us at the Smile Free campaign – and the many other people campaigning to remove all mask mandates – it has been a positive few weeks. On January 20th, secondary school children in England were liberated from the requirement to wear face coverings in the classroom, followed, a week later, by the removal of all mask mandates in England. A similar easing of mask restrictions was announced by Nicola Sturgeon on February 22nd (although this reprieve for the Scottish people will not happen until March 21st). And even London mayor, Sadiq Khan, has conceded that masks will no longer be a condition of carriage on the capital’s transport system. Although this news is all very welcome, it is not good enough for our politicians to claim that these measures are being relaxed solely because of the currently reduced risk of harm associated with the Omicron variant; such a rationale means that masking the healthy, the most insidious of all the COVID-19 restrictions, will be imposed again at the first hint of another viral threat. What we require is a clear and unambiguous acknowledgement that our political leaders, with support of Government scientists, inflicted an intervention on the British people that was unethical, ineffective and harmful and – importantly – their commitment never to do so again.
This is a big ask. Those seeking to retain power over us rarely admit to mistakes. However, the likelihood of such an occurrence would increase if more of us could recognise that mask diktats were introduced for reasons other than viral control. In a previous article, I made the case for masks primarily being imposed as a compliance device, a means of keeping the British public responsive to any restrictions (current or future) the Government might wish to enforce in pursuit of its agenda, whatever that might be. To highlight further the evidence consistent with this assertion, I posed some questions I would like to ask Professor Chris Whitty (England’s Chief Medical Officer) about the reasons for his U-turn in spring 2020 from mask sceptic to mask advocate. The bulk of responses to this article were supportive, but a few of the comments raised objections – three in total – that I will now address.
Objection 1: The Government wanted to save masks for frontline health workers, so Whitty and the rest were just telling us a ‘noble lie’
According to this explanation, the scientists and political leaders knew from the outset that face coverings for healthy people would be helpful as a viral barrier, but they were worried that if the general public started wearing them there would not be enough masks available to safeguard our doctors and nurses. In other words, in the early months of 2020, they were lying to us, but for an altruistic reason.
While I accept that the COVID-19 rule makers have often acted in a paternalistic way towards the British people, this explanation is implausible. If access to masks was the primary driver of mask policy at this time, would they not have said something along the lines of, “Masking healthy people would be of some help in reducing transmission but we must be brave, do the right thing, and save them for our NHS heroes”’? A message such as this would have been consistent with the Government’s fear-inflation strategy and would likely have encouraged people to remain at home, thereby enforcing the major restriction of the time – although the behavioural-science ‘nudgers’ would not have been comfortable with a mask-free face (rather than a covered one) becoming a sign of virtue.
Objection 2: The U-turn was in response to new evidence supporting the efficacy of masks
The pro-mask lobby often refer to a Lancet paper, commissioned by the World Health Organisation, involving a review of 29 studies. This piece of research – published in June 2020, after the U-turn by Whitty and many others – represents a stark example of a ‘scientific’ approach that has become much more prevalent throughout the COVID-19 era: ‘Decide on a policy, and then search for any evidence that might support it.’ This study, which made the ridiculous claim that masks could reduce infections by as much as 80%, has been resoundingly discredited. The main criticisms include: 25 of the studies reviewed focus on SARS-CoV-1 and MERS, infections that are almost exclusively spread by acutely ill hospitalised patients (not the healthy asymptomatic); the inclusion of evaluations of N95 Respirators rather than everyday (cloth) masks; the misinterpretation of several studies, thereby reporting conclusions that differ from the original authors; and a neglect of studies exploring community transmission in real-world settings. Based on these flaws, Toronto Professor of Epidemiology Peter Jueni formed the conclusion that the Lancet review was ‘essentially useless’.
In spring 2020, the only robust study of mask efficacy to appear was a review of 14 randomised controlled trials (published May 2020) that concluded that masks did not significantly lessen the spread of influenza in the community, protecting neither the wearer nor others. The following month, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health published a rapid evidence review that included the finding that: “There is no reliable evidence of the effectiveness of non-medical masks in community settings.”
Clearly, whatever changed Whitty’s mind, it was not new evidence.
Objection 3: Masks are old news; we’ve moved on
It is true that – mercifully – U.K. Government mandates are lifting. Nonetheless, covered faces remain ubiquitous in a range of settings, including airports, aeroplanes, hospitals, health centres, care homes and pharmacies. In addition, face coverings continue to be worn by a significant proportion of patrons in supermarkets, theatres, buses and trains. This remnant of masking constitutes the flickering embers of a tyranny that can be re-imposed in an instant by any Health Secretary so inclined.
For as long as a significant number of people continue to believe that masks fulfil a worthy purpose, and low viral prevalence is offered by the Government and its scientists as the primary reason for removing restrictions, the state will retain in its armoury a quick and effective way of ensuring citizens acquiesce to their next human-rights-destroying diktat.
The war against masking, this most insidious of all the COVID-19 restrictions, is not yet won.
Dr. Gary Sidley is a retired NHS Consultant Clinical Psychologist and co-founder of the Smile Free campaign.