It is ten o’clock in the local Sainsbury’s, and every other customer is following the rules and wearing a face covering. Except one anti-masker in the second aisle. Most shoppers respond with time-honoured British understatement, tut-tutting behind their masks, or rolling their eyes at the miscreant to shame him.
But for one masked mother, with her small child, his lack of contrition is the final straw. She gives the refusnik what for. When that doesn’t work, she picks up a tub of double cream and chucks it into his face.
That is the story currently doing the rounds on social media – though the originator has chosen to remain anonymous. And there are many more going viral, from both sides of what has become a new dividing line in our society: to mask or not to mask?
Like Lara Crabb from Devon. She filmed herself in her local Tesco and farm shop without a mask, complaining loudly to camera that fellow shoppers were treating her like she had “the plague”. When she posted the video, she added insult to injury by including that she hadn’t clapped once for the NHS during lockdown.
While all the evidence points to the vast majority of us following the rules that made face-coverings compulsory in shops, supermarkets and takeways in England from Friday, there is also a rising tide of anger in aisles.
In a survey published on Monday, 37 per cent of respondents say they have witnessed furious rows when individuals break the rules over masks – in shops and on public transport.
According to another poll this week, one in eight people have been confronted or reported for not wearing a mask, the equivalent of around six million Britons.
So what is going on? If so many of us are convinced of the case for wearing a mask when shopping – the same survey shows only six per cent saying they never will – why are we so intolerant of that fringe of eccentrics who don’t?
The obvious answer is that this tiny minority is putting the law-abiding majority at risk. The regulations explain that wearing a mask is not about protecting yourself, but rather reduces the chance of anyone who has Covid-19 but is asymptomatic passing it on to others. It is not about individual choice to catch Covid or not – if, say, you are young and regard yourself as in a low-risk category – but instead doing your bit for the common good.
But the regulations also allow shop-workers not to wear masks, which undoubtedly makes the scientific case weaker. In my local farm shop, for instance, shoppers at the deli counter were all masked, but the staff – some of whom were busy making up pies and sausages rolls in the open-plan kitchen while others served – were not. How does that work?
And the whole argument around masks is hardly a clear-cut one scientifically. Guidance from medical researchers, the government and the World Health Organisation has flip-flopped over their effectiveness during the course of the pandemic – from initially saying masks were of little use in combatting Covid, to now acknowledging they might have a benefit.
Indeed, Boris Johnson today announced that face masks will become even more widespread in Britain, required whenever you come into contact with “people you don’t normally meet” in public indoor spaces. That includes museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship.
When the science is muddled but rules are nonetheless imposed by a “nanny state”, it risks playing into a wider debate that has been going on in society in recent years where experts are instinctively distrusted. Piers Corbyn, older brother of the former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, himself a former Labour councillor, took part earlier this month in a dozen-strong anti-mask protest in Nottingham, but took the opportunity in the same breath to advocate taking down 5G, ending vaccinations, and resisting track-and-trace as an encroachment too far by the state.
It may have been a dig at any conspiracy-theory element in the anti-masker minority when Boris Johnson remarked last week that, “all these anti-vaxxers are nuts”. He was launching the government’s plans to extend flu vaccinations to everyone over 50 this winter as part of the strategy to prepare for a second spike of Covid-19.
And if the prospect of Coronavirus returning in force is worrying the Prime Minister, it may also be panicking those who react so badly to bare-faced shoppers in their supermarkets. Or to anti-mask protestors parading around London’s Hyde Park recently for the cameras waving their placards reading, ‘don’t let them muzzle you’, ‘I will not be masked, tested, tracked’ and ‘Save Human Rights’.
Organised by the campaign group Keep Britain Free, the rally attracted just a few hundred protesters. It should have been laughed off. Instead the furious reaction it provoked in the Twittersphere showed that it had touched on a raw nerve in pandemic-haunted Britain.
“If you don’t like wearing a mask, you certainly will not enjoy the ventilator,” read one tweet. “Think brains were already oxygen-starved,” suggested another.
Having spent 14-weeks shut in our homes, unable to see our loved ones, in some cases denied the chance to be with them as they died, or attend their funerals, and still massively restricted in where we can go on holiday as we face a recession that may take away our livelihoods, the British public is in no mood to show its usual tolerance when it comes to those whose protest against masks puts at stake everything achieved so far by hard graft in the fight against Covid-19.
We are a nation on our guard, in a perpetual state of hyper-vigilance, and it is not helped by the fact that the same authorities who have told us that mask-wearing is essential to defeat Coronavirus are doing so little to enforce their own rules.
The police have said they will only enforce the rules and £100 fines as a “last resort”. That hardly counts as a deterrent. Some retailers are employing Covid-19 Compliance Officers in green high-vis jackets, while McDonalds and Costco have been posting pictures online of their staff taking a tough line and turning bare-faced people away at Essex branches.
But other big retailers like Sainsbury’s have said publicly they “won’t be challenging” customers without masks. In the absence of police intervention, or a willingness by those who run commercial premises to challenge rule-breakers, the field has been left clear for the anxious and frustrated to turn vigilante and use a tub of double cream as a weapon.
There are some behavioural scientists who have suggested that refusal to wear a small piece of cloth during a pandemic is part of a much wider polarised political and social debate than public health, one that includes lack of trust in government, the erosion of fundamental liberties and the fall-out from Brexit.
In an article in the New Statesman entitled, “How mask-wearing became a new culture war”, the science writer and broadcaster Philip Ball, author of How To Build A Human, argued that anti-masking was all about the libertarian right’s disdain for social responsibility and scientific expertise. Meanwhile the pro-Remain New European weekly labelled refusing facemasks as the “Brexit opinion” and “just as illogical as their stance on the EU”.
Beware the easy stereotypes. The anger around anti-maskers cannot always be explained by logic. At the Hyde Park protest, for example, some of those attending were wearing masks but had decorated them with anti-mask slogans.
Trying to make assumptions about the motivations of those who disdain masks can be a risky business. You might be on reasonably safe ground challenging the smugness and superiority of an exhibitionist young man who last week was photographed walking down Oxford Street in London, naked save for the face mask he used a flimsy thong.
But confronting a fellow shopper or fellow user of public transport about their lack of a mask may bring you face-to-face with someone who has autism, mental health problems or an illness that causes breathing difficulties. Then you will be the one feeling shame.
Many people simply don’t want to risk it – something the anti-maskers are, according to reports on social media, exploiting to the full. Guards at shops recount challenging a bare-faced shopper and being berated for their lack of sensitivity to their disabilities, before the individual in question runs off, crying ‘fooled you’, or worse.
At best, this new normal is going to take time to bed in – as well as hard evidence of effectiveness in falling infection rates. Only then may the current anger about mask wearing subside. For their part, the small minority of anti-maskers appear determined to miss no opportunity make this a long, hot, fractious summer on our already struggling high streets.