I cannot remember how many conversations I have now had with people about whether or not the Government should be legally imposing the wearing of face masks – be it in shops, or anywhere else. What I do know is that, for me, this is a complicated one.
It depends on whether you mean it in an absolute or a relative sense.
As a liberal conservative, living in a free society, I find it utterly abhorrent in an absolute sense that any government should impose such drastic measures on its entire society, with the threat of civil fines that are not inconsiderable for some families to pay off in the event of non-compliance. I should add at this point that I personally find the mass wearing of masks quite horrible – whether this is due to the sheer amount of human interaction that is missed through a ‘blank’ mouth, or the problems that people at large who need to lip-read will now suffer, or anything else.
As an aside, there is also the fact that, whenever I venture out of my home for a walk, I can by no means say whether a particular shop that I pass by might happen to take my fancy. So, if I want to retain the freedom to take a random detour inside while on an afternoon stroll, I will have to get used to the idea of having a mask at least with me any time I leave the house. This is one area that I think may not have been fully thought through here; officially, it is just for shops, but in practice the reality may be different.
However, the alternative is that their wearing should be ‘imposed’ culturally. This argument, as put forward by Michael Gove and many other voices (including several libertarians, as it happens), aims to make the wearing of masks a matter of “basic good manners, courtesy and consideration”, as Gove himself told Andrew Marr.
I actually have an even bigger issue with this alternative, though. People are scared enough already, and there is a grave danger that allowing – or, even worse, actively encouraging – the wearing of face masks to ‘infect’ the very strong British sense of ‘good manners’ will cause it to become normalised and embedded within our society. And I do not see anyone who advocates this standpoint coming up with any kind of plan for how, once we had got that mindset into our society on an ostensibly temporary basis, we would ever get it out again.
As the saying goes, “there is nothing so permanent as the temporary”. I do not want to see us turn into a nation of perpetual mask-wearers, as large parts of some others are. That would disturb me greatly. So, in a relative sense, the question then becomes: what happens if one is forced to choose between the two?
With that in mind, I am in extremely reluctant support of the Government’s move to impose the mandatory wearing of face masks through legal measures. At least with a law, and particularly owing to its draconian nature, the public will understand that this is meant to be temporary – although a sunset clause would be a handy reinforcement of that too. There is then, as it were, some light at the end of the tunnel – and that is the message the country really needs right now.
The alternative risks bringing about a broader cultural transformation in our society that, frankly, I do not want to see. It is perfectly fair to suggest that there will be deeper lessons around cleanliness and hygiene that this country – and the wider world – would do well to adopt in the long term, in light of this pandemic. But a world with a typical high street scene where no-one can see an entire half of anyone else’s face, year upon year, is not one that I want to raise my children in.