Is the legislation driven by political gain or necessity

By Chiara Castro: Political Columnist

In coping with the Coronavirus emergency, the British government showed, more than once, incompetence and disorganisation. A significant delay in starting the lockdown that cost hundreds of lives was followed by the introduction of a stumbling Track and Trace programme. Unclear guidelines, once the lockdown was eased, disorientated both public and business owners. It was the prime minister in person to admit that England could have handled the COVID-19 outbreak differently and that “there will be plenty of opportunities to learn the lessons of what happened.” As latest questionable move, the introduction of mandatory face masks, just in some indoor settings, that came out only at the middle of the pandemic.

In the last few, rough months, we were spectators of an ever-changing turmoil of beliefs and opinions about whether or not the use of face masks could have been useful for containing the spread of the virus. From arguable evidence that demonstrated, not just their ineffectiveness, but also the risk that wrong use could provoke more harm than good, a change of perspective appears to have come from the scientific world. The ultimate view is that a covered mask protects more the others than who is wearing it, but it could prevent the spread of the disease. Therefore, face coverings have become an “advised” device to use in crowded and enclosed spaces. One more time, the government attempted to ascribe the responsibility to citizens’ individual judgment. Perfectly in line with the modus operandi of the “Stay Alert” approach that the British government is publicising so widely. Eventually, No.10 probably understood that reliance on people common sense is a slippery path. Or, perhaps, BoJO did not want to lose the race with Lady Scotland in liberating the country from the COVID-19 transmission.#

Whether for Health or political reasons, the outcomes do not change: from the 24th of July, England made face masks mandatory in retail shops, takeaways, indoor shopping centres, banks, post offices and transport hubs. These regulations were in place since 15th of June, under which citizens were required to don face coverings only on public transports and hospitals. Plus, from the 8th of August the legislation has been extended also to other indoor settings including hairdressers, cinema, theatres, museums, galleries and place of worship. After all, it was the health secretary Matt Hancock who revealed that the government’s strategy is introducing these policies “in chunks”. Under this light, we should probably expect that pubs, bars and restaurants will become part of the list soon. If on one hand this tactic could give enough time to people to get used of these new policies, it created an undeniable confusion among the public. And, why does not the rule apply to staff working in these indoor spaces? Are they, by any chance, exempt from carrying the disease?

It is not a surprise that Brits are skeptical and disorientated by the governments apparent U-turn on face coverings. The advice campaign came with mixed messages and conflicting behaviours from Downing Street leaders. Rishi Sunak, Micheal Gove and Keir Starmer are just some of those who have been captured maskless in public. Also prime minister Boris Johnson did not follow his own counsel. Until the day he announced that face masks will be compulsory in all retail shops and takeaways, he had never been seen with the highly recommended piece of clothing on his face. This clear discrepancy inevitably affected the credibility of government guidelines.

How can England expect its citizens to comply with its norms if even its cabinet ministers do not appear to be in observance? For not talking about the internal contradictions that preceded the introduction of the new regulations. Even on the 12th of July, only 24 hours before the health secretary confirmed the new rules, Mr Gove was still insisting on the “common sense” line.

Cover Photo: Anna Shvets

The change of direction about face masks has not been welcomed with great enthusiasm either. Some angry grassroots Conservative members cut their membership party cards as an act of protest against the new law. On Twitter, the hashtag #NoMasks soon became viral. A proper mask war has rapidly escalated. The battlefield sees on one side the supporters of the line of thought that wearing a face covering violates personal civil liberties, against those who believe that not using one is a sign of disrespect towards other people. Tory MP Desmond Swayne depicted the new rule as “monstrous imposition”. On the same line, the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens referred to face mask as “a soggy cloth muzzle, a face-nappy”. Also, anti-maskist ministers refused to make face coverings mandatory in parliament. While, labourer questioned the decision of the government to wait 11 days before putting into force the new regulations. A political backlash that obscured the potential health benefits of the mandate. All this is not surely helping in enforcing the trust of Britons in its leaders and decisions.

“…officers would only intervene as a last resort”

Another reason, for which the new legislation sparked controversy among Tories, could be redirected to the relationship between Scotland and Downing Street. Nicola Sturgeon appeared, indeed, to be a step ahead to Mr Johnson in coping with the virus. Despite the Scottish lockdown started at the same time as in the rest of the UK, pubs and bars were closed for a week longer than in England, its contact-tracing programme relied more on local authorities than the English counterpart, lockdown restrictions have been eased with more caution and the so much criticised compulsory face masks mandate came into force on the 10th of July. So, the Scottish prime minister is moving, apparently successfully, at the pace of a Zero-Covid approach. That is the strategy strongly advised by Independent Sage, which has already been embraced from Northern Ireland as well. Probably, admitting that Nicola Sturgeon could be a much more competent leader is a big bullet to bite. Particularly, in a tense climate where support for Scottish independence is increasing.

A point that is still unclear about the face masks English tale is: who is going to enforce the law? After the announcement of the new policies, we all witnessed a ping pong of responsibility between police force and retailers. On one hand, the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), who had already experienced puzzling directives when lockdown measures came into place, declared that officers would only intervene as a “last resort”. As Ken Marsh, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, stated to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme “This cannot all be laid on the shoulders of the police yet again.” While, George Eustice, the environment secretary, declared that shops have to play their role in enforcing the rules on face coverings. Although, as trade unions and business owners pointed out, relocating the burden over to retailers could lead to abusive behaviours against staff, who are already facing more mistreatments and challenges than usual. Also the reaction of some companies, like Sainsbury’s, Asda and Costa, represents another fail in credibility. They, indeed, declared that they will not penalise maskless customers to shop in their stores.

The number of nations that decided to adopt compulsory face masks in public spaces has notably increased over the last few months. Even Mr Trump finally surrendered to the World Health Organisation recommendations. Now, also England decided to join the almost 130 countries around the world where cloth masks are required in public. As we have seen, this did not come without frictions and concerns, though. Whether or not face coverings are the correct tool for containing the spread of the disease will be soon revealed. It could be the right move to help the economy restarting, safely. Although, as experts warned, social distance and attentive hand hygiene practices cannot be relaxed, yet. We are walking towards a masked world. We should take into account all its consequences, positive or negative that will be.

Meet Chiara on the Team Page. Also see the Politics Department.

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