A symbol of the pandemic and an emotive flashpoint in the debate over Covid-19 restrictions, face masks are set to start coming off in England as most curbs are lifted on Monday’s long-awaited “Freedom Day”.
The end of mask requirements from July 19 under a new credo of “personal responsibility” is the most contentious part of the government’s unlocking plan.
While many people will be happy to ditch the face coverings, critics of the new policy say it actually limits freedom for vulnerable people who will go out of their way to avoid the maskless.
Dr Julia Faulconbridge, a member of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Psychology, said seeing bare-faced strangers would cause alarm for many people accustomed to wearing masks.
“For most people, it’s actually become a habit,” she told The National. “So why are we trying to break that habit when we know that it is one of the best things that we have to keep the pandemic under control?
“It’s not just people who personally feel vulnerable who are feeling it’s not going to be safe any more, it’s the people who understand their responsibility to other vulnerable people who are saying that as well.”
Prof Robert Dingwall, a member of the government’s advisory group on virus threats, said the fear of the virus that people had developed over the past 18 months would continue to drive mask uptake.
“A lot of the debate that we’ve seen over the past week or so is really reflective of the levels of fear and anxiety,” he said.
“The levels of emotion that we’ve seen are really bound up with the psychological rather than the epidemiological issues.”
Under pressure from scientists alarmed by the third wave of infections, ministers are still advising the use of masks even as legal mandates are lifted.
The government line is that people are “expected and recommended” to keep wearing masks in crowded places such as train carriages.
Businesses and local authorities are free to go further, with London mayor Sadiq Khan announcing this week that masks would remain compulsory on the capital’s transport network.
Supermarkets including Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda all say they will ask shoppers to keep wearing masks.
Dr Faulconbridge expects that many people will continue to wear masks even where there is no requirement.
She said young people could be influenced by peer pressure, either towards maintaining masks or abandoning them.
“Teenagers and young people are more prone to do things because that’s what their friends are doing, and therefore they might want to continue to wear a mask,” she said.
“But if everybody else isn’t and they start to make jokes about it, then it’s very hard to continue.”
Like other countries, the UK scrambled to buy masks for health workers when the pandemic erupted but initially downplayed their effectiveness for others.
Fears were raised that wearing a mask would foster a false sense of security and reduce compliance with other measures.
The advice later changed and masks became compulsory on public transport last June, and in shops and supermarkets last July.
Fines for failing to wear a mask were eventually raised to a maximum of £6,400 ($8,860) for repeat offenders.
A University of Bristol study last month produced results that mask-wearing could cut transmission by about 25 per cent if widely adopted.
Research suggests that masks may be useful only if a high percentage of people wear them.
Many scientists see masks as a trivial inconvenience but others are concerned about their effects on social interaction and the welfare of children.
Health chiefs are piloting a transparent face mask which could reduce issues around communicating with others.
Dr Faulconbridge pointed out that those who have physical or mental difficulties with wearing masks are already exempt from covering their faces.
The exemptions allow people to take off a mask if asked to do so in a shop or a bank, where they have traditionally been frowned upon for fear of robberies.
But Prof Dingwall is among those voicing concern about the long-term effects of masks.
He said the government should send a more reassuring tone and stress that many spaces are safe.
“Masks are essentially there as a symbol to say, 'be afraid of other people, be afraid every time you set foot outside your house',” he said.
“They are really quite destructive to society in the long run. Human societies are built on face-to-face interaction.”