Mandatory face masks in Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon wore this face mask by Slanj Scotland that supports the Homelessness Charity Shelter Scotland.
Nicola Sturgeon wore this face mask by Slanj Scotland that supports the Homelessness Charity Shelter Scotland.
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Divergence from Boris Johnson appears to have reduced the number of infections in Scotland

As from the 10 July 2020 the wearing of face covering inside shops is mandatory in Scotland. The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has not refrained from being seen wearing a face mask, unlike the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson who waited until 10 July. It might be suspected that Boris Johnson donned a mask as a reaction to the announcement in Scotland showing, again, how the First Minister had a better thought through strategy.

Face masks work in two ways: they protect those wearing them, though not completely, and also significantly reduce the risk of transmission from those wearing them. The latter is critical, as transmission is believed possible even from asymptomatic individuals.  Mrs Sturgeon has put emphasis on the altruistic nature of wearing face masks: “This is a really important way for all of us to protect each other and to display that sense of solidarity that has served the country so well over these last few months.”

Just a few days ago, on 7 July, the President of the Royal Society, Professor Venki Ramakrishnan, stated that our Prime Minister’s failure to make the use of face masks mandatory in enclosed spaces had placed the UK “way behind” many other countries. The Royal Society had published a report on 26th June which concluded that face coverings are effective in reducing transmission. 

Making the use of faced masks mandatory requires consistent and effective public messaging but has been successfully implemented in many countries. However, some populist leaders, like President Trump in the USA (until 11 July) and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, have carefully avoided being seen wearing a face mask. Bolsonaro stated that face masks were “too gay” and subsequently became ill with Covid-19. Trump’s America and Bolsonaro’s Brazil are the two nations with the largest number of infections, as shown on the worldometers website: this is the consequence of ineffective policies and failed leadership.            

Boris Johnson has also shown poor leadership with seemingly fateful delays in introducing the lockdown and implementing large scale testing and contact tracing. Lockdown in the UK has been marred by a sequence of mistakes and policy reversals. Thus, the UK  is the European nation with the largest number of deaths (per 1 million population) apart from Belgium. 

Jon Elledge, in an article for the New Statesman, has asked: Why on earth aren’t English politicians wearing face masks? I suspect the reason why Boris Johnson hasn’t (until 10 July) is because he wanted to send the message that we are back to normal: engendering a feel-good factor could be a strategy to gloss over his mistakes.

Scotland had decided to diverge from England with a more prudent and gradual lockdown exit. This strategy seems to have paid off with a greater reduction in the number of cases in Scotland, in comparison with England, during the first ten days of July. On 9 July 2020 The New Scientist reported that Scotland could eliminate the coronavirus, if it weren’t for England, as some of the recent cases in Scotland were from just over the border with England.

Boris Johnson is wrong in giving the false impression that Covid-19 is over and that control measures, including wearing of face masks, are not important. The key strategy in limiting the damage to the economy is preventing a second wave. As we all know, steady and slow wins the race. Face masks are as important as hand hygiene and the one-plus metre distance: we need these control measures not because the risk is high, but because we need to keep it low.

Having heard that the Scottish First Minister had made the use of face masks mandatory in shops, Boris Johnson hinted on Friday 10 July that he might do the same in England, although his ministerial colleague Michael Gove then said otherwise on Sunday 12 July on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. In Italy, the use of face masks has been mandatory since May. This is the story of Covid-19 in the UK: dithering and delay before being forced to do the right thing. With pandemics the consequences of ineffective leadership are dire.

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