Experts clash with Boris Johnson as he moves to scrap compulsory mask-wearing in shops and on transport

·6-min read
Wearing masks is not likely to be required by law except in medical settings from July 19 (REUTERS)
Wearing masks is not likely to be required by law except in medical settings from July 19 (REUTERS)

Doctors and scientists clashed with Boris Johnson on Monday morning as he moved to scrap compulsory mask-wearing in shops and on public transport.

The chairman of the British Medical Association, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said the Government’s expected decision to let people choose for themselves “makes no sense” and would mean more people being infected.

And a member of the Government’s own Sage panel of scientists, Prof Callum Semple, said he “probably will” continue to wear a face covering.

The medical director of Primary Care for NHS England, Dr Nikki Kanani, said she would continue to wear a mask if they are advised but no longer compulsory - because they are effective.

There was also fierce opposition to scrapping compulsory face coverings on trains, buses, Tubes and trams from some of Britain’s city mayors who run local transport, including London’s Sadiq Khan and Manchester’s Andy Burnham.

The Prime Minister confirmed at a press conference on Monday afternoon that wearing masks will no longer be required by law except in medical settings from July 19, whicg is on course to be ‘Freedom Day’.

It means that people will not have to wear face coverings by law in shops, on busy Tube carriages and buses, at pubs and restaurants or when enjoying shows at theatres and cinemas.

The Government’s Care Minister, Helen Whately, declared this morning that she “can’t wait” to stop wearing a mask, though later in a round of interviews she conceded she will pop one on in “crowded” locations.

A poll of Londoners recently found 65 per cent would prefer mask to remain compulsory for buses and the Underground.

Medical leaders stressed that the arguments for masks was that they mainly offer protection for other people, not the wearer, which meant nervous travellers are made safer from infection if everyone on a crowed carriage wears one. It also means that someone exercising their “personal choice” not to wear one is endangering others rather than himself or herself.

Dr Nagpaul was emphatic, telling Radio 4’s Today: “We believe that it makes no sense to stop wearing face masks amongst the public in closed public settings such as public transport.

“We know that face masks are proven to reduce the spread of this infection if worn by everyone around you, including yourself. And as a time when we have exceptional high levels of cases, we cannot understand why we would knowingly want people to become infected.

BorisJohnson arriving for a service of commemoration and thanksgiving to mark the 73rd birthday of the NHS at St Paul’s Cathedral on Monday (PA)
BorisJohnson arriving for a service of commemoration and thanksgiving to mark the 73rd birthday of the NHS at St Paul’s Cathedral on Monday (PA)

“And as for personal choice, remember that the public face masks, do not protect the wearer predominantly, they protect people around you. So many people will be forced to go to work, they need to travel on public transport, why should they against their will need to be exposed to a virus and the risk of falling ill when it’s so simple that they can be, to a significant degree, protected by themselves and others around them wearing masks?”

Professor Semple made the same point, saying: “It’s got to be remembered that the mask-wearing is primarily to stop transmission rather than acquisition.”

Dr Kanani told Times Radio: “I think one of the things that we know is, masks work. Let’s see what the announcements are, but certainly, if there is advice to keep wearing masks, I know I will and I’ll be encouraging others to do so as well.”

Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B) which advises the Government, called for the continuation of “support and proportionate mitigations to keep us safe” from coronavirus.

“I think we need very clear messaging and I think in certain spaces - crowded, badly ventilated spaces - masks are crucial mitigation,” he said.

A clash between Whitehall and city halls was rumbling. Manchester Mayor Mr Burnham tweeted on Sunday night: “I struggle to see how Ministers can drop the requirement to wear masks on public transport without causing real problems for some people who are dependent on it. Those more vulnerable to infection or anxious about it will be put in a very unfair position. Rethink needed?”

A spokeswoman for London mayor Mr Khan said there was evidence that facemasks gave Londoners more confidence to travel and “as they get busier will be a vital part of encouraging more people in central London”. TfL could in theory set its own rules, but City Hall sources said it would be confusing for passengers if the requirements changed when people transfer from rail services and stations onto buses, Tubes or London Overground services.

Mr Johnson was having final meetings with ministers and officials ahead of a 5pm press conference at which he will confirm his belief that it will be safe to move to step four of the Roadmap out of lockdown on July 19. Final confirmation that the full reopening can go ahead is due in a week, after more data is analysed.

Among the key new freedoms now within touching distance are:

* Full houses and no masks will be allowed in theatres and cinemas, setting the stage for the return of big West End shows and nights out.

* Pubs will be able to fill up again, with drinkers standing and free to order at the bar rather than sitting at a table.

* Restaurants and pubs will no longer be required to ask guests to scan a QR code or collect details for track and trace. Diners will not have to wear masks while going to their table.

* The official instruction to “work from home if you can” will be scrapped on July 19 in England. It will then be up to employers and staff to work out whether they have to go back to their desks. Ministers have shied away from asking people to go back to the office, despite business concerns that major cities need an injection of workers to recover.

* People who have had both doses can look forward to more freedoms on holidays in the future, though probably later than July 19. Double-jabbed Britons may be allowed to return from Amber List countries like Greece and Italy without having to isolate for 10 days. Similarly, they will no longer have to isolate at home if they have come into close contact with someone who tests positive, as long as they test negative with daily lateral flow tests.

* School “bubbles” are set to be reformed after worries that whole classes or year groups were constantly being sent home whenever just one pupil tested positive. From September, pupils who were in close contact with a known carrier may instead be given daily tests.

The Government was also due to publish the results of its reviews into the use of so-called vaccine passports and the future of social distancing guidance.

Ms Whately told Sky News that things were “on track” for July 19. She said vaccines had “weakened” the link between cases and fatalities, though not broken it.

On masks she said: “We’re going to be asking people much more to take personal responsibility for choices like that. I know, like many others, I can’t wait to not have to wear a mask, but I will be cautious and try to make the right judgments and follow guidance on this.”

Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, said people should continue to follow hygienic practices even after coronavirus restrictions had been lifted and use “common sense.”

Asked if he would still voluntarily wear a mask, he told BBC Breakfast: “I’ll be following the guidance as I have throughout.

“There may be occasions in the next few months in a crowded environment where I might choose to wear a mask and I’m sure others will make similar choices.

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