A portrait of our attitude to face masks, in six revealing statistics

Alice Hall
·6-min read
Face masks are proving divisive among Britons  -  Ian Hodgson/© 2020 Bloomberg Finance LP
Face masks are proving divisive among Britons - Ian Hodgson/© 2020 Bloomberg Finance LP

Take a trip on public transport now, and what's the first thing that you notice? It's not the sweaty armpit of a fellow commuter, or the hoards of shoppers jostling for space on the train platform. Rather, it's face masks.

The simple face covering is set to become the abiding symbol of the Covid pandemic in Britain, thanks in large part to the Government's shifting 'should we shouldn't we?' prevarication on the topic. While other countries embraced masks from the off, here in Blighty we remained free of any legal requirement to wear coverings until July 15, when they became compulsory on public transport. Since then, the goal posts have only widened: masks became mandatory in shops on July 24, and from August 8 they'll be required in cinemas, galleries, and places of worship.

Such drip-drip messaging means that we've been talking about face masks for months. And that perhaps helps explain why they're now the target of considerable anger. The medical community may be coming around to the idea that face masks work in slowing the spread of coronavirus, but to a legion of so-called anti-maskers, the coverings are a symbol of heavy-handed Government control, even oppression.

Thankfully, in among all this noise, there are some cold, hard statistics that tell the story of Britain's evolving relationship with face masks...

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1. A slow start...

In comparison to our European neighbours, British people are renowned for having a laissez-faire approach to face masks. Despite the wearing of facial coverings being recommended advice from the British Government as of 11 May, a YouGov tracker survey undertaken in mid May revealed that a mere 21 per cent of Britons were donning a protective mask when they went out in public. By comparison, face mask wearing in France skyrocketed during this month from 56 per cent to 79 per cent. As the New York Times reported, it seems that “Brits would rather be sick than embarrassed.”

However, the same survey did reveal some insight into our desired look. The utilitarian medical mask claimed the top spot, with 30 per cent of wearers opting to wear that style of mask. Home-made cloth masks were the choice of 27 per cent of people, while 17 per cent improvised using a scarf, or a similar item.

2. Causing conflict...

Have you been confronted about not wearing a face mask? If so, you’re not alone. According to a study carried out by King's College London and Ipsos Mori, one in eight people has been confronted or reported for not wearing a mask, the equivalent of around six million Britons.

Writing in the Telegraph, one woman - who is face mask exempt due to an invisible disability - shared her experience of being verbally abused three times for not wearing a face covering when she was out. “I felt small and humiliated. With an anxiety disorder, any form of confrontation is a challenge, so this felt like the end of the world,” she said.

It perhaps doesn't help that conspiracy theories are rife. The same study found that 10 per cent of people said they believe face masks are bad for you, and 13 per cent think they are just a way for the Government to control people.

3. Yet most people support them...

It may not seem like it, but the British population is generally in agreement over the potential benefits of wearing a face covering. According to a YouGov survey undertaken in July, seven in ten Britons think that wearing a face mask helps public health. The same study found that 91 per cent of people polled supported the move to make face masks become compulsory on public transport.

Many have taken to social media to show their support. On Instagram, the hashtag #maskselfie has 33k posts, while the hashtag #facemask has 5.1 million.

In the scientific community, things aren't so straightforward. Some experts believe that wearing a face covering lures people into a false sense of security, meaning they are more likely to skip other hygiene precautions.

4. But not on holiday...

Very little used to stop Britons from jetting off on their annual holiday - not even a global pandemic. But it seems that face coverings might be doing just that. According to a YouGov survey, at least half of British holidaymakers would rather cancel a holiday than wear a mask outdoors, while 40 per cent would cancel a trip because they have to wear a mask indoors. Some 70 per cent said they would cancel a trip if they had to quarantine for two weeks on return.

And it's not just because of the potential for dodgy tan lines. One social media user took to Twitter to write: "Exactly! Wearing a facemask on holiday is no holiday. Back in March I decided to write off 2020 I don't know why others didn't do the same."

5. Or in shops...

Since face masks were made compulsory in shops in England, the number of people entering shops dropped by 1.6 per cent in England - with the steepest downturn taking place in retail parks, where 6.6 per cent fewer people passed through.

Meanwhile, the outlook isn't much better for those who work in shops. Supermarket workers are facing a worrying rise of "mask rage", with the Co-op recording 990 incidents of antisocial behaviour and verbal abuse between Monday, July 20 and Sunday, July 26, two days after masks were made compulsory in shops. According to the retailer, this is historic levels of abuse.

6. But... why?

A YouGov survey undertaken in June entitled 'Britons still won't wear face masks' looked at the possible reasons why donning a covering over your mouth gets so many of us hot under the collar. They found that the top reason people don't wear one is due to comfort, with 76 per cent of those surveyed saying they expected to feel uncomfortable. In true British style, the next reasons were due to feeling self conscious (52 per cent), silly (52 per cent) and embarrassed (47 per cent).

Covering are on the rise, though. On the 30 July, a survey by Kings College London found there has been a marked increase in face mask wearing, with 70 per cent of people now saying they have worn one in the last few weeks. This is up from 19 per cent in April.