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  • Alastair Cavendish

The Truth of Masks

Few but the most fanatical Covid enthusiasts now bother to pretend that there is any significant medical benefit to be derived from covering one’s mouth with a damp, crumpled bacteria-trap for hours every day. It has always been clear that the main purpose of these articles, almost none of which resemble the medical-grade masks worn by doctors and dentists, is to force people to wear a badge of allegiance in the most visible place possible. When there is widespread compliance, this reminds people to be afraid. When there is not, the absence of face-coverings provides a useful barometer of public mood.

In the small seaside town where I live, about 30-40% of the population persists in wearing masks outside, something no one has ever been told to do in this country. It is these people who provide support for the contention that the public is in favour of even more draconian action by government, but they are not in the majority. Inside shops and public buildings, the majority do wear masks, but a sizeable minority, perhaps 25%, do not and they are generally able to go about their business unmolested. I personally have been challenged only three times in the course of as many weeks.

The legal position is widely misunderstood, not least by the police. It is, in fact, deceptively simple, in that nothing the government has done over the last two years has substantially changed the law. If some contrary shopkeeper had decided two years ago that all his customers had to wear muzzles, he would have been within his rights to deny entry to anybody not wearing one. The premises, after all, are his. He could simply have put a notice on the door stating: “Muzzles required!” and proceeded to show that door to the unmuzzled. This remains the position today.

All the government’s verbiage on the subject is nothing but smoke and mirrors. They tell you it is compulsory to wear a muzzle “unless you are exempt”. So, you look at the exemptions. One of these refers to “people for whom putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause severe distress”. Since there is no medical definition of “severe distress”, you might translate this as: “You must wear a muzzle unless you really don’t want to.” Moreover, the exemptions listed on the government website are merely examples. Others are theoretically possible. Finally, you have no obligation to show a card, or discuss the nature of your exemption. You can simply say: “I’m mask exempt” and, if further details are demanded add: “I am not obliged to provide any further explanation or evidence. I object to discussing my medical history with a stranger.”

In fact, my own experience suggests that few shopkeepers are bothering to attempt this tedious and potentially embarrassing exchange in order to enforce a policy in which many of them presumably do not believe. The media doggedly focus on the hypocrisy of Conservative politicians indulging in unmasked orgies whenever the mood strikes them, and whatever rules they happen to have made for others in the recent past. However, the same reporters seldom make the equally obvious point that the people who behave like this, and who have data they withhold from or misrepresent to the public, are obviously well aware that none of the provisions on which they insist, including muzzle-wearing, makes the slightest difference. I will make a rare statement of belief in the political class of this country and say that I truly believe they are cowards. If they thought they were going to contract a deadly virus by eschewing masks, they would muzzle-up. They do not believe it, hence we are treated to their scrofulous phizogs every time we turn on the television.

When these eyesores (the muzzles, not the politicians) were first introduced, I refused to discuss them, thinking that they were unworthy of serious attention. Like the niqab, I thought them ugly and undesirable, but if people wanted to wear the wretched things, that was their concern. However, the cries of their proponents changed with lightning speed. First it was “please be understanding and tolerant when nervous people choose to wear nappies on their faces”. Then it was: “you should be wearing one too”. Then: “you can’t even complain about wearing the muzzle, you have to enjoy it”. Finally, the Susan Michie variant: “we should all wear muzzles forever, just in case”. People started wearing muzzles in their school or club colours (note to Lord Hannan: if the Garrick objects to members wearing club ties on television, what do you suppose is their attitude to those who tweet pictures of themselves in salmon and cucumber masks?). The Fitzwilliam Museum, damn and blast their goggly eyes, released a range of greetings cards with reproductions of famous paintings marred by masks on every human face.

Compared with the evils of lockdown and vaccine passports, face-coverings are a relatively piffling issue. They are, however, highly conspicuous, a psychological tool in ramping up the fear and keeping it ramped. Britons may very well be glad that they do not live in Austria or Australia. A pathetic, craven, crawling, creeping, nudging, nagging, fussing, footling, wheedling, worming quidnunc of a government is preferable to one that is frankly fascist. Yet there are plenty of links between the trivial and the consequential. It is only too likely that the Prime Minister ushered in the latest restrictions on liberty in order to distract the public from his participation in illegal Christmas parties. It is also possible that these parties themselves have served as a distraction from some of the most illiberal legislation this country has ever seen in the shape of the Nationality and Borders Bill, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The link between face-coverings and fascism is no more far-fetched than the link between the fundamental rights of a British citizen and a few soggy canapés wolfed down by the increasingly lupine denizens of Downing Street.

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