Like those famous Japanese soldiers still fighting World War II on a remote island decades after everyone else had ended hostilities, a minority of healthcare settings in the U.K. enter 2024 with local managers attempting to insist that visitors and patients wear “face coverings” into a fourth consecutive year. For allowing the dogged persistence of this superstitious practice we can thank the U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA), despite the fact its own boss, Dame Jenny Harries, made a series of incredible admissions about the value of masking at the recent Covid Inquiry. There was no solid proof masks ever slowed the spread of Covid, Harries explained. The advice to the public to make their own “face coverings” was “ineffective”. Worst of all, by creating a false sense of security, masking may have actually made things worse, she said. Of course, if you’d been paying attention, you’d know Harries was really just coming full circle.
On March 11th 2020, in her previous role as Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, less than two weeks before the first lockdown Harries was telling the public in a televised interview with then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson that “for the average member of the public” masks “are really not a good idea… people can put themselves at more risk than less… you can actually trap the virus in the mask and start breathing it in”. Harris was far from alone in dismissing the value of mask-wearing, of course, because in the early spring of 2020 the public health experts spoke with one tongue. “In terms of wearing a mask, our advice is clear: that wearing a mask if you don’t have an infection reduces the risk almost not at all. So we do not advise that,” Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, had told Sky News on March 4th. “We do not recommend masks for general wearing,” echoed England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jonathan Van Tam, on April 3rd. On the same day, Professor Jason Leitch, Scotland’s Clinical Director said, “the global evidence is masks in the general population don’t work”.
The experts were so clearly united in their anti-mask stance that, around this time, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) banned the advertisements of two companies because of spurious claims that their face coverings would protect against coronavirus. The intervention by the ASA won the unequivocal support of NHS Medical Director Professor Stephen Powis who said, “callous firms looking to maximise profits by pushing products that fly in the face of official advice is outright dangerous and has rightly been banned”.
On April 16th, then-Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had told ITV that wearing masks would be “counterproductive… the suggestions people would make their own masks; whether it’s clothing and that sort of thing which doesn’t really provide that much protection. Secondly, the way people take it off can sometimes do the reinfection [sic]. Thirdly, it can provide a false sense of security”. But only 49 days later, on June 4th 2020, Shapps announced that “face coverings – not surgical masks – the kind of face covering you can easily make at home” – would be compulsory on public transport from June 15th, on pain of fines of up to £100. A day later, Government announced that, effective June 15th, staff would be required to wear surgical masks – and visitors and outpatients “face coverings” – in all NHS hospitals, a state of affairs that would persist by law for almost two entire years.