The Not-So Great Cover Up

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The case against compulsory mask-wearing.

I tend to nod along in agreement to so much of what David Flint writes on The Reprobate that by the end of his pieces my head is in danger of becoming dislodged from my shoulders. So I was surprised and disappointed to read his recent pro-masks tirade on this platform, and the vehemence with which he put forward his argument. David has kindly allowed me a response, so here we go, let’s see if my alternative viewpoint finds any favour.

Firstly, most crucially I feel, do masks work? The evidence is, at best, patchy. There is evidence that a certain sort of surgically fitted, one-time use mask can be useful, but not the type of face coverings most people wear, and certainly not the way they use them or look after them. As Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer, said a couple of months back, they probably do more harm than good. Around the same time, Chris Whitty said he did not recommend mask use. The World Health Organization said in March that it did not endorse mask use, although they have since flipped, as they have on many things (human to human transmission, which countries took the best approach etc), chiefly because of political pressure.


Recent real-world evidence does not point towards their usefulness. In South Africa, face coverings became mandatory on May 1. At that point, there were 5,951 infections in that country. As of now, there have been 408,502. In the UK, despite hardly anyone wearing a mask, we’ve seen the death rate plunge from (apparently) many thousands of deaths a week in March to single figures now. In France face coverings are required in shops, in next-door Switzerland they are not – Switzerland has had fewer deaths per million. Spain’s endorsement of masks has not stopped them having one of the highest death rates in Europe.


I think we can say that masks are not especially effective in stopping the virus. In fact, they may increase it, as people wearing them get too close to one another and also go out more even when they are unwell. I am very aware of the ‘better safe than sorry’ argument, but as the very wise lockdown sceptic Dr John Lee said on a recent podcast with Brendan O’Neill, we really have to define what ‘better’, ‘safe’ and ‘sorry’ precisely mean in every instance. The alternative which we perhaps hadn’t even thought of might be worse.

So once we’ve acknowledged that masks have patchy effectiveness we move on to whether we should still wear them as a sort of placebo. I’m not too keen on placebos – like homoeopathy and religion, they offer false consolation and can also do more harm than good. But I would question whether they even do offer any sort of consolation: I think scenes of masses of masked people suggests that all is very far from safe, all very far from being normal, not to mention the discomfort to the user from actually wearing the thing. At a time when we should be encouraging people back to the shops, this will likely do the opposite: who would want to spend three or four hours in a shopping centre, going from shop to shop, maybe getting a coffee or a bite to eat in between, if you can’t properly breathe?

Mask wearing on public transport has not encouraged people to use it more, why should it with shops?

There are also so many inconsistencies in this ruling: you wear one in a grocery shop, but not in an optician; you wear one in a clothes shop, but not in a cinema. Do you wear one in the barbers? I’m not even sure – how many people know for sure whether you can or can’t? Try and guess whether the six staff in the pharmacy I visited yesterday had masks on. (Answer: they didn’t.)

The cumulative effect of this is to confuse and crowd and worry the mind. A relaxed and happy life it does not make for. Speaking personally, I struggle to wear one for sustained periods because it gives me anxiety and makes me feel unwell. I had a serious issue with my lungs in 2001 and they have still not fully recovered, never will. Now I will not go into a shop with a mask and I will not go into a shop without a mask, even though I have a lanyard from Disability Horizons stating that I have a hidden condition. Either way is too stressful, either because of discomfort with the former and the feeling of being ‘shamed’ if the latter (I will probably have to make rare exceptions to pop to the corner shop, no doubt). All of this makes me feel ostracised from society, of feeling like an outsider, The Prisoner in The Village – and there will be many like me. Everyday life is already psychologically punishing enough now, with people leaping away as we walk past them on pavements, lists of twenty rules to abide by when we enter the pub, and people telling us where to go on a floor plan in a restaurant, without the further imposition of being made to cover our features when we are out. It feels like to me, and many others I’m sure, like the walls are closing in, and it’s horrible.

And have a thought for the shop workers who have to wear masks all day long. Not only does it create anxiety and breathing difficulties in some, they have the additional psychological hell of suspecting that their job may soon be terminated, which is quite likely considering the number of chains who are now slashing retail jobs. We are replacing viral illness with mental illness (and mental illness that will afflict vastly more people than Covid-19 has).

Besides all of the above, why now? The virus, which was never as bad as thought to be by some in the first place, is barely evident in large parts of the country. If masks were so important, why wait till four months after the pandemic began? 

And also, how long will this go on? Will it ever end? Will masks be extended to even more places? Will we have to wear them in the street? Will children in schools, absurdly, soon be required to wear one? We are on a slippery slope; I wouldn’t put anything past this highly authoritarian government. In the public sphere, the meddlesome ratbags of the world have been given licence to tut us all into a hole of shame – this is a recipe for rancour, discord and disharmony. 

Do we just mindlessly go along with whatever our masters tell us, the way 14th-century peasants went along with whatever nonsense the Church told them? For ‘behave yourselves or go to Hell’ you could almost substitute ‘wear masks or very bad stuff will happen to you’. It’s moral blackmail. Masks are very like the lockdown and the tardy travel quarantine – of no real use, but they show that the government is ‘doing something’; there are certainly people in power who have got addicted to ordering us around over the last four months.

So, wear a mask if you wish to, that is absolutely fine. But oh mighty leaders, please end the compulsion for all of us to do so as soon as possible.

DAVID LEWIN

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10 comments

    1. You’re mixing correlation for causation. Japan was not protected against covid19 by masks. I say this because masks didn’t prevent an awful ‘flu epidemic a couple of years ago which killed huge numbers of people.

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately, the direction of travel for this government’s policies is firmly downward, with the fuckwitted Hancock currently toying with the idea of adding goggles to the mix. Why not a full NBC suit whilst we’re at it?

  2. I’m 100 percent in agreement with this article, and am just saddened that I didn’t get round to publishing my own (which I wrote before David F even wrote his) take on events. And I may still do. Incidentally, Steve Green- as a fellow horror historian living in the West Midlands (and we have met, at Manchester FOFF 2005 just to clarify) I am hereby extending an invitation for you to join me for a pint. I need psychological syustenance from like minded folk.

    1. PS That should of course read ‘but I may still do’, rather than ‘and I still do’ – and ‘sustenance’ rather than ‘syustenance’ Thith computerr ith thitt.

  3. Wont go in a shop with or without one – either way the stress is too much. This. 100% this.

    Also just walking around outside – I cannot tell if people are smiling, glaring, about to cry, happy sad, angry, or anything, and just not being able to “read” people drives a stress response, I suspect in everyone but many are unaware of it.

  4. ‘Won’t go in a shop with or without one – either way the stress is too much.’ Yes. Ditto for a bus or a train. Being surrounded by masked people is giving me literal nightmares. The black masks are especially disquieting as they look from the front like the kind of gag a kidnapper might put on a hostage. The message seems to be ‘shut your gob and do as you’re told’. Those blue disposable surgical things are being discarded all over the street. I’ve even seen them lying on the path in the park, courtesy of some of the masked dog-walkers. It feels as if I am living in a world run by the dementors of Azkaban.

  5. In the interests of even-handedness and taking the time to read the other chap’s argument, I read David Flint’s piece on why we should wear masks. I notice that there are no comments to this earlier essay.

    My argument runs:- a study published in Nature in May (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0843-2) tested a total of 246 ‘patients’ over the period of a few years who were suffering from any combination of that year’s ‘flu, rhinovirus (head cold) and coronavirus (‘common’ cold). NB this was NOT tested on COV-SARS-19. The approximate figures were a properly fitted surgical mask trapped around 50% of the expelled droplets (> 5 micons) and 5-10% of expelled aerosols (<5 microns), during the 30 minute test period. The droplets and aerosols were expelled by coughing or sneezing. However, for the asymptomatic (not coughing or sneezing) 29% (72 out of 246), the researchers were unable to detect ANY virus particles in the patients exhalation, either with or without a mask. Which leads to the next logical step – asymptomatic sufferers do not spread the virus. Which is what the WHO said months ago and had to retract the statement in short order. Indeed the good Dr Deborah Birx (Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House) is on camera stating that breathing can spread the virus (!)

    I agree with the comment that 'masks for all' will tempt those who HAVE got symptoms to go out, trusting in their masks. The 50% droplet reduction (10% aerosol reduction) was for a 'properly fitted' surgical mask, not a strip of old T shirt or the cheap tat on sale currently. And if you ARE infectious/coughing and you are wearing a mask, you are, of course, breathing back in the 50% (10% aerosol) that you coughed out, and is now trapped inside your mask, thereby adding to your own viral load, which appears to be one of the factors determining recovery.

    My take, for what it's worth, is that if you are in the at-risk sub-set, (and you ARE in a minority here), and you have/want to go out, wear a proper mask, properly. Maintain social distance restrictions. Let the young and low-risk groups get on with their lives, which in most cases is getting the economy back on its feet, rather than insisting they pander to your fears. But then I guess that, according to David, I'm just selfish, or a nutter and probably right wing as well.

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