Stepping off the train at Manchester Piccadilly station on a Friday night was like stepping forward and back in time simultaneously.
Despite everything that The (Actual) Science says regarding the lack of evidence* that masks reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2, here in Scotland we are still ordered to wear a mask for the foreseeable future and there is dispiritingly widespread compliance.
We don our masks like gurning medieval peasants clutching a lucky rabbit paw to ward off evil spirits, bobbing eagerly to appease the nonsensical and downright contradictory whims of our masters. Much comfort is taken from the belief that by complying we are Good People: responsible, caring, respectable, safe in the superstitious approval of the crowd, and that nothing Bad can happen to us if we only obey our betters. Follow The Science!
In my small provincial town I am more often than not the only unmasked shopper; many people still wear masks outside; and what is infinitely worse, inflict them on their children.
So to walk to my hotel through Manchester city centre on a Friday evening, past happy crowds of unmasked people – youngsters dolled up and out on the lash, strutting their stuff, arms linked and erupting into bursts of laughter – was both a vivid reminder of the life of 16 months ago and a sucker punch of yearning for what I dearly hope will be our future in Scotland. To meet some of the other women attending the conference at a bar and all squeeze into a booth, laughing and talking over the music, without ever once thinking of social distancing; of the possibility of disease; of them as anything other than fellow humans with whom I wanted to connect was something I will try to never take for granted again.
If what I’ve just described sounds reckless, if you are thrown even slightly off-balance reading it, please notice how insidiously the infernal message that all other humans are first and foremost potential disease vectors has infiltrated your psyche over the past 16 months. In one sense it’s factually correct, and has been since the dawn of time, but only in extreme times of virulent plague has it ever been the first consideration in social interactions. And Covid is no such plague.
It’s true: what I did on Friday night has increased my odds of coming into contact with SARS-CoV-2 (and a whole host of other things). Had I not gone to Manchester and stayed at home watching the telly instead, I could have avoided that risk. Had I declined the invitation to speak at the conference I would not have exposed myself to any number of invisible germs on my journey south.
But where does such disproportionate safetyism lead? To a sterile, arid and isolated existence, accessing this glorious dirty life not firsthand but virtually through an antiseptic screen; an addictive, superficially gripping facsimile life that shrinks to fit the size of box determined by those who control the content to which we have access. To becoming the perfect timid and infantilised consumer: a consumer of information, goods, permitted experiences and opinions and values, moulded to fit the shape the powers that govern us judge most efficient. To become Lenina Crowne in Huxley’s Brave New World. To a life utterly and remorselessly devoid of meaning. A living death.
That’s not for me. And it’s really not for you either. Whatever your definition of a good life is, that coddled Zombie existence is not it. Whether you hold humans to be intelligent animals or sparked by the divine, we need to go without and go within and find our meaning. We need to explore our worlds and our hearts, and there is no way to do this honestly that doesn’t involve risk, danger and hurt. Those that would seek to remove all risk from your life do not have your best interests at heart.
You are going to die, you know. Wouldn’t you like to live, first?
The conference I attended was called Women Questioning the New Normals, and it was a wonderful collection of women from all over the UK and from all political backgrounds. We were united in our concern to halt the harms done by lockdown restrictions to the most vulnerable. The other speakers were moving, resolute and inspiring, and I was honoured to be among them.
Below is a video of my talk at the conference – the footage was kindly taken on my phone by a participant and the noise of rustling cake wrappers subsides about 1 minute in.
* here is an excellent summary of the evidence of mask efficacy, and a timeline of official advice and how – without any new published evidence to affect the status quo – it changed. Written by Peter Hitchens and published in the UK’s Daily Mail on 27 May 2021
Why are people still wearing masks, especially outside?
The state of existing scientific and medical opinion and knowledge on face coverings can be easily found by studying the clear statements of the authoritative bodies and persons, made before the matter became a political controversy (all emphases are mine) :
The World Health Organisation, March 2020: ‘There is currently no evidence that wearing a mask (whether medical or other types) by healthy persons in the wider community setting, including universal community masking, can protect them from infection with respiratory viruses, including Covid-19.’
On March 31 Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health emergencies programme, said ‘There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly.’
In March 2020, England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said that wearing face masks would do little to combat the outbreak. While noting that if someone was infected, they might reduce the danger of spreading the disease by covering their faces, Prof Whitty said wearing a face mask had almost no effect on reducing the risk of contracting (my emphasis, PH) the illness.
He stated: ‘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.’
In June 2020 in advice to reopening businesses, HMG’s Department for Business and Enterprise said repeatedly: ‘The evidence of the benefit of using a face covering to protect others is weak and the effect is likely to be small.’
Note that these statements, from qualified persons in possession of full information, cover both the use of face coverings to protect the wearer and to protect others.
Subsequent changes in the opinion of the WHO and HMG were not reached on the basis of scientific experimentation, as no such experimentation has taken place which changes their earlier statements. Deborah Cohen, BBC Newsnight’s medical correspondent, found last summer that the WHO reversed its opinion on masks on political grounds, not medical grounds. It is reasonable to assume that HMG did the same, and there is no evidence for any other reason.
More recently in an interview on BBC’s Radio 4 ‘Today Programme on 9th February 2021, the former Chair of the Royal College of GPs, Dame Clare Gerada , said ‘We knew virtually nothing about masks this time last year. We just knew that they happened to be worn in certain areas of the country overseas. But we did not know if they protected the individual or protected others.’
It was in this context that the Danmask-19 study was carried out in spring 2020 by supporters of face-coverings. It was a very large study, and the first Randomised Controlled Trial of any size to examine the question of whether they protected their wearers. The existing position was, when the study was carried out, that there was no significant evidence to support claims that masks protected either their wearers or others (see quotations above, PH). None had emerged since March, when this was the official position of WHO and HMG.
The exact words of the report are that the difference in outcomes between wearers of masks and non-wearers was ‘not statistically significant’, an unequivocal statement of experimental fact.
The study was openly intended by its authors to provide hard experimental evidence for the usefulness of masks, at a time when this was a major subject of interest and controversy. It was large, competently undertaken and rigorous, to an extent never seen before in studies of this matter. RCTs are the gold standard of such experimentation. Yet it failed to provide that evidence and left the status quo in being. Given the absence of any further such study, and the fact that (as far as I know) no other such study is under way or proposed, this result is conclusive in the current controversy and defines what all properly informed people can claim to know. The default position, as described by the WHO, Prof Whitty, HMG and Dame Clare, remains the same.