LONDON — As Britain forges ahead with reopening its economy after 16 months of virus-driven restrictions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces a backlash over an issue that has vexed the country’s response to the pandemic from the start: whether to require people to wear face masks indoors.
In outlining his government’s plans to lift most remaining restrictions in England on July 19, Johnson said in a news conference Monday that he wanted to leave it up to people to decide whether to keep wearing masks in subways, buses and other confined spaces, though transportation authorities could still require them.
That drew fire from local officials and scientists, who said the government was putting more vulnerable people at risk and being overly casual at a time when the virus continues to course through the population. Britain reported 27,334 new cases Monday and 178,128 over the last week, an increase of 53% over the previous week.
“Wearing a mask is not to protect yourself, it is to protect others, which is why it has to be a requirement on public transport,” said David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the government who has been an outspoken critic of its approach. “That is where I don’t think they understand the problem.”
Johnson said that thanks to Britain’s widespread deployment of vaccines, the link between cases and hospital admissions had been weakened, if not broken completely. Britain, he said, must find a way to live with COVID by allowing people to use their personal judgment to manage the risks.
“We must be honest with ourselves that if we can’t reopen” during the warmer summer months, when schools are on break and the risk of transmission is generally lower, Johnson said, then “we must ask ourselves, ‘When will we able to return to normal?’”
While cases in Britain have risen steeply in recent weeks, hospitalizations are rising more slowly, and deaths more slowly still. Britain reported nine deaths from COVID on Monday, a small fraction of the number of fatalities it reported the last time cases were running at a comparable level.
But hospitalizations doubled in the last week, England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said at the news conference, and admissions and deaths always lag behind case numbers. So there are lingering concerns among public health researchers that those numbers, too, might begin to rise sharply in coming weeks.
Given how widespread the virus is, local officials and labor unions that represent transportation workers said that ending the requirement for mask-wearing on public transportation would be an act of “gross negligence” on the part of the government.
“Rates of infection are continuing to increase and not only does mask wearing reduce transmissions, it helps provide reassurance to drivers and to passengers who are nervous about using public transport,” said Bobby Morton, the national officer for passenger transport at one of the largest unions, Unite.
“The idea of personal responsibility and hoping that people will wear masks is absolutely ridiculous, members are already reporting there is an increase in passengers ignoring the rules on mask-wearing,” Morton said in a statement.
The mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, of the opposition Labour Party, echoed that position, declaring on Twitter: “I struggle to see how Ministers can drop the requirement to wear masks on public transport without causing real problems for some people who are dependent on it. Those more vulnerable to infection or anxious about it will be put in a very unfair position.”
Britain’s resistance to face masks goes back to the earliest days of the pandemic and is rooted in culture and policy. Scientists advising the government initially played down the benefits of masks as a way to slow the spread of the virus, with one health official going so far as to say that a mask could trap the virus inside it.
In May 2020, the government’s influential Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies retroactively amended the minutes of one of its meetings to reinforce its skepticism about the value of masks. The evidence is weak, it said, “and it would be unreasonable to claim a large benefit from wearing a mask.”
That played into Britain’s deeply held views on personal liberties and the reluctance of many people to appear rattled, which commentators said was partly rooted in class issues. Polls showed that Britons were slower in voluntarily putting on masks than people in Asia and the Americas, or elsewhere in Europe.
With Germany, Italy and Spain mandating masks indoors, and with scientific opinion coalescing around their efficacy, Johnson shifted course last summer. By then, Britain had recorded more than 50,000 deaths from the virus, a cataclysm that critics blamed at least in part on the government’s sluggishness in acting.
A final decision will be made next week but, under the plans Johnson presented Monday, rules requiring the wearing of masks in England would be lifted July 19, with decisions left to individuals. Government guidance would suggest that people might do so in confined and crowded places. Travel companies and businesses would be permitted to set their own rules on masks.
Regardless, the planned relaxation would lift almost all legal COVID restrictions for England. That would allow nightclubs to reopen and remove curbs on numbers of people in theaters and cinemas and at live events. The rule limiting the numbers of those meeting inside homes to six people, or two households, would end, as would the requirement that pubs only serve people who are seated.
Customers would no longer be required to leave their contact details when entering pubs and restaurants, the current 1-meter distancing rule would be scrapped and the government’s appeal to people to work from home would end. The gap between vaccination shots for those 40 and younger would be shortened to eight weeks, allowing the rollout of vaccines to be stepped up.
When Johnson was asked whether he would wear a mask, he said, “it would depend on the circumstances,” before clarifying later that he would wear one on a crowded train. But he added, “we’re trying to move away from government diktat to relying on people’s personal responsibility.”
Whitty said he would continue to wear a mask in confined spaces if he was required to do so by authorities, or if his lack of a mask made people around him uncomfortable.
Laurence Aitchison, one of the authors of a study on the effect of masks, said their use could reduce the risk of transmission by around 25% while being of limited inconvenience to most wearers.
“Even if the government decided to relax mask mandates, environments such as the tube might be an exception,” said Aitchison, a lecturer in computer science at the University of Bristol. “People are rammed together on the tube in a way that they just aren’t almost everywhere else.”
The move away from restrictions, he said, is based on an as yet unproven assumption that Britain’s vaccination program had broken the link between case numbers, hospital admissions and deaths.
“I don’t think anyone can definitively say that link has been broken,” he said, adding that in that context, removing restrictions irreversibly, as Johnson has promised, would be “ill-advised.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.