Why 19 July will not be the end for face masks

Approach to face coverings after Freedom Day will ‘cause the greatest confusion’

Boris Johnson in a mask
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson is due to announce a “bonfire” of coronavirus restrictions from 19 July as the government hands back responsibility of judging the risk to individuals.

The prime minister will lead a press conference this afternoon in Downing Street where he is expected to tell the country that we must “begin to learn to live with this virus”, paving the way for a restoration of public freedoms.

Limits on gatherings, one-metre social distancing rules, working from home guidance and QR code check-ins are expected to be scrapped. But “it is the approach to masks that could cause the greatest confusion”, says The Telegraph.

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Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick confirmed yesterday that face coverings would no longer be mandatory in enclosed spaces – but the newspaper says people might still need to wear them in certain circumstances.

‘The great mask divide’

Some pubs, restaurants and hotels will continue to require customers to wear masks to “reassure more ‘reticent’ customers”, hospitality chiefs told The Telegraph. Local authorities, which oversee Covid risk assessments, may also require people to do so, it says.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of Hospitality UK, told the paper: “I think there might be a temptation of local authorities, that needs to be resisted, to put in place actual fixed regulations or rules that are more restrictive than they need to be.”

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has “already called for the rules on face masks to remain after July 19”, reports the Manchester Evening News.

“You’ve got to think of people who feel worried about being out there,” he said on the BBC’s Question Time last Thursday. “I think about the tram in Manchester, I know if that [social distancing] goes some people will feel very vulnerable to use the tram. I think it’s better to keep the masks requirement.”

A YouGov poll last month appeared to support his claims, with 56% of people still planning to wear a face mask on public transport and 50% in shops.

The Daily Mail says City Hall sources have also suggested that Transport for London could “in theory set conditions of carriage relating to face coverings”, but that this could prove difficult.

The newspaper tells its readers to “prepare for the great mask divide” as face coverings “stay by stealth in pubs, on trains and in shops” despite the government’s “bonfire” of restrictions.

‘Motivated by ideology’

Experts are also divided on the plan to abandon the legal requirement for masks and the wider reopening of the country, which will not be officially signed off until next Monday.

The British Medical Association has called for the masks rule to remain in place beyond 19 July, while Professor Susan Michie, the director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London, warned on Twitter that “allowing community transmission to surge is like building new ‘variant factories’ at a very fast rate”.

But others, such as Dr Mike Tildesley of the University of Warwick, disagree. The infectious diseases modeller told BBC Breakfast that 19 July is “probably the right time to consider” removing masks as hospital admissions and deaths from Covid remain low.

And the newly appointed health secretary, Sajid Javid, said yesterday that the nation needed to find ways to cope with Covid-19 “just as we already do with flu”. He argued that lifting the main restrictions would not only aid the nation’s finances but also its health, despite the likely rise in coronavirus cases.

The Guardian science correspondent Linda Geddes agrees that this is the case for shutting down businesses and events but when it comes to masks, they are just “a mere inconvenience for most people” and they would help reduce transmission. “Doing away with them has nothing to do with the economy or people’s mental health,” she says. “It is motivated by ideology.”

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