To Mask or Not to Mask

I remain pretty confused about this business of wearing face masks.  I first expressed reservations about the efficacy of face coverings in a post on Friday 24 April and came to the tentative conclusion then that they may have little effect. 

At the time that judgement was backed by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty who had declared that wearing a mask didn’t reduce the risk of either transmitting or catching COVID-19.  Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, his Deputy, also declared emphatically the there was no evidence whatsoever that wearing a facemask would slow the spread of the virus. 

Yet other authorities suggested the reverse – especially medical bodies abroad where the wearing of face coverings was much more in evidence.  The simple truth is that disagreement about such a matter implies that there is no concrete evidence either way.  To be honest I don’t understand why not by now?

I recall on 24 April writing the following words.  To mask or not to mask that is the problem. When I go for my daily walk or shopping, I note with a little guilty alarm the increasing numbers of veiled constituents out and about like myself. I suspect they, in their turn, may regard my naked face with some unease. Am I letting the side down? Should I look like a medical bandit too? Before Coronavirus struck, I had some (very private) disdain for people walking around London in facemasks. How things have changed. 

In truth I hate wearing a facemask.  It impedes my breathing and I loathe the feeling of my nose and mouth being unnaturally hot and stifled of fresh air.  It also seems to me I am rebreathing the stale stuff I have just expelled in my last breath.

Yet I now have to wear a mask on the train to and from Shortlands daily and, if I jump on a bus or take the tube from Victoria to Westminster re-fix the damned thing again with elastic over my lugholes.  Apparently, we may all be forced to don them again when going into shops and some have suggested in offices too. Oh Lord do we have to do that?

In truth I am more than ready to accept edicts about wearing a mask in public if the scientific evidence that so doing would save just one life but still there is a deafening silence on this. 

I understand our hair is about a tenth of a millimetre thick. Standard bacteria like E coli is one thousandth of a millimetre across – that’s hugely smaller than a hair’s thickness.  Now here’s the bad news. The Coronavirus is about ten times smaller than E coli. So, our deadly COVID-19 enemy, would be able to squeeze 1,000 copies of itself into the width of a human hair. Put another way 20 million coronavirus can fit on the head of a pin.

So, with regard to Coronavirus, it could be that masks have as much chance as a tennis net does of stopping a gnat going straight through it – except that the gnat is thousands of times too big for that analogy. Coronavirus could simply float through cloth facemasks without a problem. However, I am clear that if we want to stop spittle hitting other people when we talk, cough or sneeze or perhaps some air pollution going into lungs then they might suffice to do that.

Paper or cloth facemasks are hardly airtight. A lot of air gets into them and escapes from the sides. That is unavoidable. So, too, is the fact that coronavirus lands on skin and clothing and can lurk there live until it is moved perhaps by a hand which then touches a mouth or the eyes and thus gains entry to someone’s body.

I say what follows with some diffidence and am expecting to be challenged but I wonder whether the reason we are now forced to wear facemasks in public places has more to do with public (politically correct) pressure rather than for truly public health reasons?  Are facemasks cloth or paper simply placebos to make people feel better about themselves? 

I’m quite sure I will be challenged by some for daring to suggest that face coverings might not do what they claim on the tin.  On that point, I recall that at one stage in the Coronavirus Crisis, companies who were making facemasks with printed statements on their outer packets that they provided safety against COVID-19, were prosecuted by the Advertising Standards Authority for false claims.

Official Government figures suggest that 0.03 per cent of England have the virus.  That would mean that when I was in the Elmers End Tescos, Sainsburys or Waitrose in Beckenham I would probably have to bump into 4,000 shoppers before I met one with the virus – and that in no way means I would automatically catch Coronavirus.

I now have over 100 facemasks in my house ready for reluctant daily use on my part. I will do what I am told about wearing a facemask (as must we all) but I truly hope I will never have to use them all and I continue to await the evidence of what real protection they give any of us.