Maskless and careless – welcome to Boris Johnson’s England

·4-min read
‘Social responsibility means enduring a mild inconvenience for the benefit of others’ (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
‘Social responsibility means enduring a mild inconvenience for the benefit of others’ (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

I suppose the clever thing about the new approach to mask-wearing and social distancing is that the government says it is all down to “personal responsibility”. This warm-sounding, grown up, reasonable appeal to our better natures seems like something few should argue with. Handily, it also appeals, in a sort of dog whistle way, to those who want to interpret it as: “Be as selfish as you like, we don’t mind, and there’s nothing anyone else can do about it.”

It is another example of Boris Johnson’s cakeism; he wants to sound all concerned and compassionate when he asks us to be considerate and exercise common sense, but also to appease the libertarian ultras who keep bugging him about the restrictions. He wants it both ways, just as he did and does on Brexit, on the Irish border, on football fans booing the taking of the knee, the vows of marriage, the ethical obligations of public life, the public finances and anything else that he encounters.

Though it was never going to happen, and it’s too late, I’d have preferred it if the sound bite was “social responsibility” but of course that would imply a certain duty to endure mild inconvenience for the benefit of others, and since when has that been a core value of the people who govern us, or, alas, too many of our fellow citizens? If the attitude is to be, “I don’t want to wear a mask, and it’s of no consequence to you”, then I fear the liberation of Britain will be less complete than we might all wish.

Those of us in the more vulnerable Covid risk categories, then, will have to continue to be extremely nervous about venturing out onto public transport, shops, workplaces, pubs, restaurants, cinemas and so on, because we can be less sure that we will be safe. This is not good for those businesses, I have to add. If we see lots of people in those indoor environments maskless and careless, then naturally we will take some personal responsibility and avoid them. It’s not fair on us, but there we are.

I’m also a little concerned about the way the wearing of the mask is becoming politicised, almost an outward and visible manifestation of being a progressive, a wuss, a Remainer/Remoaner, “woke” – that sort of thing.

The wearing of the mask is almost as vilified, by some, as the taking of the knee. I do not especially want to find myself on a train being assailed for my left-wing “woke” views. What would I do? I’d like to think I’d pull the mask down a little to make myself heard and confuse my assailant by saying: “What are you talking about? I’m a hardline racist homophobe, and the mask is simply a public health precaution that has no connection to my extremist political opinions about rights for whites. Now leave me alone.” But I wouldn’t.

I’d take my mask off, move away and get off at the next stop. I would certainly never try to tell some 20 stone gorilla to put a mask on because Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, says it’s a matter of common courtesy. I’d take the risk of Covid over the greater chance of losing several teeth in that particular social situation.

This is why Sadiq Khan, Nicola Sturgeon and other leaders are right to maintain rules and incentives to encourage people to wear a mask. The government can change the law, but any company or public authority can still make it a contractual requirement to wear a mask for using their services, entering their premises, or buying things from them. On trains, tubes, planes, ferries and buses it can be made a condition of carriage, and no doubt will be. In hospitals, care homes, shops, cinemas, theatres, places of worship, sport stadiums, night clubs and so on it can similarly be required as a condition of entry.

It’s like being asked not to handle the veg before buying them, or not bringing your own snacks into the cinema, or the dress code for a club. Every business can impose lawful rules of its own, and does. These are all “discriminatory” measures, if you like, but they are fair discrimination because they do not deny service on the usual protected grounds of gender, race, disability and so on. They are also perfectly consistent with universal human rights, given that no one has a human right to use the Bakerloo line, for example. Those few with a genuine medical reason for not wearing a mask should be excused, but it is a matter for the business concerned.

It would be a lot easier though, and less tough on the staff who will have to approach truculent anti-mask members of the public, if the government had kept the rules on mask-wearing for a few more months, until we were through the Covid exit wave. It doesn’t seem much to ask.

As it stands, though, I’ll be driving rather than taking the train and avoiding workplaces, smaller shops, the cinema and so on. My choice. Personal responsibility.

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