Covid: Majority in England would wear mask if it was made mandatory, expert says

People wearing face masks among crowds of pedestrians in Covent Garden, London.
People wearing face masks among crowds of pedestrians in Covent Garden, London.

Currently people in England are advised to wear a face covering in crowded and setting but it is not a legal requirement

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The majority of people are likely to obey a rule to wear face coverings in England if it is reintroduced by the Government as part of its winter plan, a behavioural expert has predicted.

Professor Linda Bauld said the nation is “the outlier” in the UK when it comes to coronavirus safety measures, as many aspects included in the Westminster Government’s Plan B are already in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Professor of public health Linda Bauld says England is 'outlier' in the UK when it comes to Covid measures.
Professor of public health Linda Bauld says England is 'outlier' in the UK when it comes to Covid measures.

The behavioural scientist, who is Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, said the main issue is communication, and added that making something mandatory is a “big shift” which sends a message that people need to comply.

Under the Government’s current Plan A strategy, people in England are advised to wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed settings but it is not a legal requirement.

Prof Bauld said it is “striking and very unfortunate” that most Conservative MPs sit in the House of Commons without masks, compared with those on the opposition benches who have generally been seen to wear face coverings.

She told the PA news agency: “Leaders need to lead by example and with these (coronavirus case) numbers and the concerns we have, absolutely, I think politicians from all parties should be wearing a face covering when they’re in the chamber, when they can’t distance etc.”

She said that, when something is not mandatory and is not adhered to by some, that attitude can filter out to others – including those who would normally stick to the guidance.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty may bring masks back this winter.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty may bring masks back this winter.

“It’s social norms that drive these behaviours. When you mandate something, it’s a big shift, it sends a message that it’s expected and therefore you need to comply unless there’s an exception.”

She suggested there can be an attitude of “people around me are not wearing one, so why should I bother?”

She added: “I think there are some people who feel quite comfortable still wearing one and don’t care what anybody else thinks, but there are others who do (care about others’ opinions), and so therefore I think just saying we recommend it but it’s not required isn’t strong enough. It just doesn’t really work.”

If face coverings do become mandatory again in England, she said she suspects there will be groups who feel “annoyed”, “let down” and that restrictions are “infringing on their liberties”, but added that most people are likely to comply.

Prof Bauld said: “If you look at some of the evidence from previously in the pandemic, and also people’s attitudes, I think a lot of people will support this and just do it.

“So I don’t think you’re going to see rioting in the streets or protests the way you have, for example, against vaccine certification which people feel very strongly about, but there will be groups who will want to make an issue of this and will insist on not complying. But I don’t think that will be the majority.”

Figures after England’s so-called “Freedom Day” in July showed the vast majority of adults were continuing to wear face coverings when out and about, despite no longer being legally required to do so in certain settings.

A lockdown as we knew it last winter is not something Prof Bauld envisages.

“I think we need to roll out the boosters, we need to get more teenagers vaccinated, these are the things (that need to happen),” she said.

“I really don’t see any appetite in any Government around the UK to shut things down again.”