Like them or loathe them, face masks have been proven to be heavily useful at reducing the transmission of Covid-19. Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reintroduced them as mandatory in shops and on public transport. This was announced as the first major response to the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 that has been imported from South Africa. Did Johnson really reintroduce masks because of their benefits, or were other interests at play? Without wanting to seem cynical, I expect the benefits of masks played only a small part in Johnson’s thinking.
Firstly, let’s explore the public health case for mandatory masks. An in-depth global study by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that mask-wearing was linked to a 53% fall in the incidence of covid-19. Masks are clearly a vital tool in the fight against Covid-19 and with the spread of the new Omicron variant to Britain, it appears like the government felt the need to act. The Omicron variant has reached over 200 cases in the UK whilst its effects and level of resistance to vaccines remain largely unknown. Mandatory face masks seem like the obvious choice for the government; they have a clear health benefit whilst not infringing on people’s lives to the same degree as lockdowns.
Due to face masks’ strong level of efficacy, many scientists – such as Graham Medley, a member of SAGE – have been promoting their continued use since they were made optional in the summer. Due to the strong scientific support for face masks, and the high levels of Covid-19 cases in the UK, even before Omicron was publicly known, the government may have previously supported the reintroduction of masks but needed an excuse. Perhaps Omicron is the reason behind the new mask measures or maybe it is the excuse Johnson has been waiting for. However, Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has been heavily criticised for being too reactionary and ignoring precautionary warnings. Maybe Johnson felt differently this time, or maybe this policy was introduced for selfish reasons.
Arguably, Johnson has used the Omicron variant as an excuse for introducing a headline policy to deflect from the major sleaze scandal his party are facing. Following the Owen Paterson scandal, there has been an inquest into the second jobs undertaken by Conservative MPs. Former attorney general Geoffrey Cox has been outed for his lucrative second job advising tax havens in the Caribbean. Similarly, Winchester MP Stephen Brine took up an advisory role for a pharmaceutical firm – just months after quitting as a Public Health Minister, and in doing so broke the ministerial code.
These instances of sleaze, amongst a plethora of others, have degraded trust in politicians, particularly the Conservatives reflecting very poorly on Johnson’s reputation. According to YouGov, the Conservatives were polling low at 36% on the 2nd December 2021 with Labour close behind at 33%. This reflects a huge decrease in the stability of the party that won a majority of 80 seats in 2019. The Conservatives are clearly in a weak position right now, with Johnson inevitably tied to their problems.
Further bad press for Johnson has taken the form of recent news stories of migrant crossings from France, which have been defined by the tragic deaths of 27 people on one boat. For many, the Conservative’s strong anti-migrant rhetoric is to blame for the dangerous nature of channel crossings that people must face in their legitimate quest for asylum. For others, there is still too much migration to the UK, and the recent flurry of stories only exacerbates their fears. The divisive nature of the migration issue has put the government in a difficult position where they have failed to please anyone.
Looking at the recent sleaze scandals and migration stories together begs the question, what could the government do to salvage their situation? One option is trying to solve the issues, the other is to deflect from the issues entirely, encouraging the public to forget about them. Reintroducing mandatory face masks in shops and on public transport required media outlets to relay this information to the public. This policy dominated the headlines, pushing sleaze and migration off the front pages. By tying face masks to Omicron, the government have raised new fears and questions about the covid situation which are dominant throughout the press.
It seems too much of a coincidence that face masks were reintroduced at the same time as the government were being hammered over these scandals, in both the press and in Parliament. Yes, part of the government’s rationale would have been trying to limit the public health impacts, but the timing of the policy seems too strategic for this to be the main reason. In my view, Johnson saw the damage the scandals were doing and took this opportunity to try and re-cement his credibility at the top of government.
Due to the unknown potential impact of the Omicron variant, mandatory face masks for shoppers and travellers seem like the smart decision. This mode of safe, precautionary thinking has scarcely been displayed by the British government throughout the pandemic. It would be unrealistic of me to argue that politicians only make decisions for a single reason or are not influenced by different interests. However, if, as it seems, this policy was primarily introduced for the self-preservation of Boris Johnson and administration, then we should not be hopeful of any more quick, public-health minded policies happening again anytime soon.