Children returning to school after the winter break will again be required to wear masks in the classroom. What are the main reasons informing the Government’s decision to re-impose a restriction that is both ineffective and harmful? The education unions have again been clamouring for pupils to cover their faces, energised by either a baseless belief that such a measure will reduce the risk of teachers contracting the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, or maybe the less altruistic desire to further damage Government credibility by causing more disruption in our schools.
Irrespective of the motive underpinning the unions’ behaviour, it is pertinent to ask why the Government capitulated so quickly to these demands when, in contrast, they have recently resisted pressures to impose other Covid-19 restrictions. One plausible explanation for this lack of resistance is that widespread masking — of children and adults — is a potent device for increasing people’s compliance with future public health restrictions and the vaccine rollout. There is a range of circumstantial evidence to support this assertion.
What could account for the Government’s abrupt conversion to pro-mask?
One of the many baffling policy decisions over the last two years was the Government’s U-turn on whether masking healthy people was an effective way of reducing viral transmission. In early months of 2020, public health experts repeatedly informed us that donning face coverings in the community was not recommended. In March 2020, Dr Jenny Harris (England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer) was unequivocal when she stated, “For the average member of the public, masks are really not a good idea” and that “People can put themselves at more risk than less”. Professor Jason Leitch (Scotland’s Clinical Director) was equally emphatic in April 2020 when he said, “The global evidence is masks in the general population don’t work.” Strikingly, in December 2020 — several months after mask mandates had been imposed in the UK — the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a document titled, Mask use in the context of Covid-19 with the conclusion that, “There is only limited and inconsistent scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of masking healthy people in the community”. Many contemporary public figures spread a similar message.
So what could possibly account for their abrupt conversion to a pro-mask narrative in the early summer of 2020?
Clearly, it was not in response to the emergence of robust scientific evidence showing that face coverings significantly reduce viral transmission. On the contrary, a review of 14 randomised controlled studies, published in May 2020, concluded that masks did not significantly lessen the spread of influenza in the community, protecting neither the wearer nor others. If they were not informed by new science, one can only speculate about alternative explanations. Several factors are consistent with masks being deployed primarily to enhance compliance with the Government’s Covid-19 interventions.
Deborah Cohen, a medically-qualified correspondent working for the BBC Newsnight programme, stated in July 2020 that various sources had informed her that the WHO had recommended masks in response to political lobbying. When she put this possibility directly to the WHO, they did not deny it. A further piece of evidence in support of the idea that face coverings act as a compliance device is provided in Laura Dodsworth’s book, A State of Fear. Dodsworth interviewed Gavin Morgan — an educational psychologist and member of the SPI-B (the behavioural science subgroup of SAGE) — who told her that his antipathy to masks had been nullified by some colleagues in the group who believed they were useful in promoting a sense of “solidarity“, strengthening people’s feelings of cohesion in the collective fight against the virus.
It has been well established that the Government’s behavioural scientists have played a central role in shaping the national Covid-19 communication strategy by recommending a range of psychological “nudges” as a means of promoting people’s acceptance of restrictions and the subsequent vaccine rollout. Ubiquitous mask wearing (by adults and children) significantly enhances the effectiveness of three fundamental “nudges” used within this campaign. First, the exploitation of fear to promote compliance with Government diktats has been well documented. As well as being one of the restrictions fuelled by fear, masking people in community settings is also a powerful way of perpetuating fear. Acting as a crude reminder that danger is — purportedly — all around, face coverings will also hinder disconfirmation of anxious beliefs, preventing the wearer from concluding that our communities are now safe enough to re-engage in a normal way. A self-reinforcing restriction would strongly appeal to our ethically-compromised behavioural scientists.
A face covering enables instant recognition of rule followers
Second, the inherent human tendency to maintain a virtuous self-image has also been manipulated by the Government’s psychological experts — a focus on “ego”, to use the language of behavioural science. Evidence of this can be found in two sets of minutes, detailing the recommendations of the SPI-B group. In March 2020, this SAGE subgroup of behavioural scientists were proposing that Government messaging should be framed “in terms of protecting oneself and the community”, and that emphasis should be given to “the duty to protect others” and the “survival of the seriously ill”. By April 2021, the behavioural scientists were stating, “Fostering self-identities that value … the safety of one’s community could support lasting enactment of Covid-19 protection behaviours.” Masks are an effective accompaniment to the “ego” nudge, providing wearers with a stark and easily-recognisable symbol of their virtue. This link has been explicitly used in the Government’s messaging to promote masks, where an actor on a TV advert announces, “I wear a face covering to protect my mates.”
Third, the awareness of “norms” — the prevalent views and behaviour of our fellow citizens — can exert pressure on us all to conform. This widely-deployed “nudge” is greatly strengthened by mask wearing. Normative pressure (otherwise known as peer pressure or scapegoating) is less effective in changing the behaviour of the deviant minority if there is no visible indicator of pro-social compliance rooted in communities. A face covering, or lack of one, enables instant recognition of the rule followers and rule breakers, thereby escalating the pressure to comply.
These observations, considered as a whole, are consistent with the premise that masking healthy people is primarily a compliance device. Would the Government have so easily capitulated to union pressure to re-mask children in the classroom if this were not so? I suspect not. Widespread masking keeps the British public responsive, both now and to any future restrictions the state decides to impose in pursuit of its agenda.
Dr Gary Sidley is a retired NHS consultant clinical psychologist and a founder member of the Smile Free campaign to remove all mask mandates.
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