The law that’s just obliged England’s shoppers to wear masks got several angry right-wingers even hotter under their collars. Desmond Swayne MP called it a ‘monstrous imposition’. James Delingpole wondered if it was the most damaging and self-destructive thing Boris Johnson has ever done. Peter Hitchens waxed nostalgic and apocalyptic at the same time: anyone who wore a ‘muzzle’ was assenting to ‘the final closing down of centuries of human liberty and the transformation of one of the freest countries on Earth into a regimented, conformist society, under perpetual surveillance.’
Opposition to legal compulsion isn’t quite as ludicrous as those objections make it sound. Australians, Scandinavians and the Dutch have been even less inclined than English people to wear masks during the pandemic, and no Nordic state makes them compulsory at all. The more radical forms of dislike emerged among fringy supporters of Donald Trump, but their idiocy isn’t conclusive proof of mandatory masking’s effectiveness. No randomised control trial has ever established (or tried to establish) that face coverings slow the spread of COVID-19 among apparently healthy people. Until June both the World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control were correspondingly equivocal about whether wearing them in public places should be routine.
Since the only obvious downside of more face coverings is more litter, that doesn’t explain the fury though. Coughing into elbows isn’t a scientifically validated precaution either, in that no clinical trial has ever measured its benefits, but it’s unwise for everyone to cough into their hands during a pandemic all the same. And whatever Desmond Swayne might say, the only thing definitely monstrous about the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings in a Relevant Place) (England) Regulations 2020 is their name. No one’s required to cover up if that would cause them ‘severe distress’, several retail chains aren’t planning to enforce the law, and senior police officers have been insisting that they’re not keen to arrest unmasked shoppers. The libertarians might yet be vindicated, of course, but as things stand they look less like prophets than scaredy-cats.
To feel the fear, I went to a demonstration against the new law in Hyde Park a couple of weekends ago. Organised by ‘Keep Britain Free’, it drew a few hundred predominantly middle-aged, middle-class, white people, and had a vibe similar to that of an anti-lockdown protest I attended back in May. Concerns about 5G frequencies and vaccination plots were rife, linked now to false claims made in a documentary called ‘Plandemic’ that masks somehow ‘activate’ latent particles of COVID-19. While some people observed that face coverings were no guarantee against viral infection, others imagined that they kept away germs so effectively that immune systems could seize up. There were worries that re-inhaled carbon dioxide would kill, and allusions to the involvement of powerful paedophiles. Someone explained that the government’s delay in making masks obligatory proved they were a ‘distraction’, but became annoyed when I asked what they were distracting from. My bandana got lots of funny looks.
Happily, I bumped into a friendly face: a police officer called Steve Barnes I’d met at the same spot four months ago. Our paths had crossed on 29 March: a grim moment in the pandemic, just ten days before London’s death toll hit its peak (I wrote about our meeting soon afterwards: https://wp.me/p1ZazT-77). Though Steve’s an upbeat character, the mood then had been melancholy. He isn’t your average copper – as I mentioned in a post at the time, he’s a druid too – and it had emerged during our chat that he’s emotionally attached to Speakers’ Corner. Six days on from the lockdown’s start, he’d just circulated an email among Sunday regulars to tell them that its traditions of free assembly were on hold. Contemplating the expanse of asphalt, he was already anticipating their revival. ‘This is the jewel in the crown’, he’d said. ‘If this goes, everything goes’.
The atmosphere at our reunion could hardly have been more different. The area around Marble Arch was abuzz with feminists, preachers, and Black Lives Matters supporters, and Steve himself had just addressed the Keep Britain Free crowd. It wasn’t the afternoon’s most radical speech. Someone had been using a megaphone, and he’d had to explain that wasn’t how Speakers’ Corner worked: ‘If you want to get on your soapbox or ladder, you’ve got to shout!’ That let me steer our conversation towards politics though, and I eventually asked what he’d made of his audience. I was genuinely curious – it’s not every day you get to discuss conspiracy theories with a druid – but Steve was definitely on duty. Without quite evading my question, he answered a different one. ‘It’s great,’ he said. ‘A lot more groups are out than before. Speakers’ Corner feels healthier than it’s been for a long time.’
That’s what you want police officers in a democracy to say, and though nothing else about Sunday’s protest impressed me, I was almost as glad as Steve to see it happening. The government’s inconsistent approach to masking arguably has justifications (the WHO didn’t make its U-turn until June, after all), but its steady squandering of trust since March is now tainting every tired ministerial claim to be ‘guided by the science’. The extent of scepticism has to be acknowledged and understood – not least, because the success of a future vaccination programme might depend on it. COVID-19 will remain a threat until at least two-thirds of the population are immune, and there’s everything to play for. Just 6% of UK citizens currently tell pollsters they’re sure to refuse a vaccine (a proportion lower than almost anywhere else in Europe) but 25% remain on the fence. They need to be persuaded, not ignored.
The small protest was unnerving nonetheless. The rise of social media algorithms and echo chambers means that the size of real-world gatherings matters less than ever before, and one of the justifications for free speech I optimistically maintain – that bad arguments wilt under public scrutiny – has had a poor track record in recent years. Politics post-lockdown are even more mysterious. So many people claim to have been reprioritising and recentring during the atomised, silent days of spring that social attitudes to big issues like individual and collective rights have almost certainly shifted. Seismic fractures open far beneath the surface though. It’s barely possible to imagine how attitudes created by COVID-19 will one day redefine us all.
The new division that’s most visible – an imported obsession with the symbolism of masks – could hardly be more surreal. In the United States, it’s given rise to at least eight shootings (four of them fatal) and some of the Americans who say they’re battling totalitarianism are doing it by wearing swastika masks and KKK hoods. With luck, England will avoid similar extremes, but, almost like the conflict described in Gulliver’s Travels between Big-Endians and Little-Endians, a bitter war fought over which side of a boiled egg to break, the struggle’s significance is inseparable from its pointlessness. It’s now been confirmed that England has suffered more excess deaths during this pandemic than any other country in Europe. As Brexit negotiations hurtle towards an undebated dénouement and Kremlin interference in British politics goes uninvestigated, tensions with China are soaring and the US is teetering on the brink of real fascism. If I were conspiracy-minded, I’d be suspicious. Worrying about muzzles is something of a distraction.