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Wales treats shoppers as adults on masks – but for how long?

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SINCE July 24, the only part of the UK mainland still permitting indoor shopping without a face covering is Wales. That’s Labour-governed Wales, led by a First Minister who in 2018 was backed for the top job by the maniacs of Momentum. Yet on mandatory mask-wearing, Corbynite Mark Drakeford has, at least so far, been more laissez-faire than our allegedly conservative Prime Minister.

It is quite an indictment that Boris Johnson, the supposed libertarian, has proven less permissive than a bolshie boyo. Admittedly Wales has, from this week, fallen into line with the other home countries by mandating masks on public transport; Drakeford relented on this ‘for the sake of simplicity and consistency’ and because ‘it is not always possible to maintain a two-metre physical distance’. Nonetheless, for shops and other public spaces, for the moment Cardiff’s policy remains: ‘The advice of the Welsh Government is that if places are crowded then face coverings are advisory. Where places are not crowded, it is a matter for the individual citizen to make that decision.’ 

Wales’s resistance, at least for now, deserves a rousing chorus of Men of Harlech (Oxenford lyric); today, bright-eyed freedom stands before ye in the unlikely form of Dr Frank Atherton, the Chief Medical Officer for Wales since 2016. Boris Johnson’s snap decision to mask shoppers in England – announced just 24 hours after Michael Gove assured Andrew Marr on TV that it was sufficient to ‘trust people’s good sense’ – left Atherton bemused: ‘There are inconsistencies everywhere . . . in terms of what England has decided to do.’

Noting that the case for compulsory coverings remains flawed – ‘very little has changed in the evidence . . . the evidence is really quite weak’ – earlier this month Dr Atherton reiterated that face coverings are ‘at the end of the list of things that really matter’ (he prioritises distancing). And in a lesson to all pliant politicians and public health officials, the Doc declared: ‘Here in Wales we take the view to date that to mandate something is really quite a high step. We really need a high bar in order to legislate things . . . I know everybody gets very excited about the issue of face coverings, but at the moment we don’t believe that bar is high enough.’

Alas, expect Dr Atherton’s admirable stance soon to be undermined: his high bar inevitably will be lowered once First Minister Drakeford and other members of the Senedd decide it is time to cover their rears.

Depressingly, weeks ago the Welsh Conservatives came out as face-nappy fans; Plaid Cymru, predictably, already ache to ape the same petty tyrannies imposed by their nationalist counterparts in Scotland. According to Plaid’s health spokesman (and tricky anagram) Rhun ap Iorwerth: ‘The Welsh Government really needs to update its policy on face coverings and embrace the latest scientific advice.’

By ‘latest scientific advice’, Rhun ap Iorwerth presumably is referring to the World Health Organisation’s U-turn on the efficacy of flimsy face-coverings. But as revealed during July by BBC Newsnight’s medical correspondent Deborah Cohen, the WHO’s volte-face was primarily ‘due to political lobbying’ rather than a scientific epiphany. 

Throughout the Covid-19 panic Jonathan Sumption, former Justice of the Supreme Court, has been an eloquent voice of reason against the infringements of lockdown. His opinion piece earlier this week for the Telegraph advocates for freedom: ‘We all need to make our own personal risk assessments . . . we cannot keep running away [from the virus].’ 

Recognising that ‘we are going to have to live with Covid-19 whether we like it or not’, Lord Sumption acknowledges that ‘for some people, social distancing will remain a sensible precaution’, but insists: ‘The rest of us should respect their choice but drop it and get on with our lives.’ Oddly, though, he believes that ‘masks, by comparison, are a minor issue . . . people will soon tire of them’.

Will they? On this point, Sumption seems uncharacteristically complacent.

On Wednesday in TCW, Brendan Sharp posited that in his home town of Potters Bar, ‘in recent weeks, a sense of disregard towards wearing masks in public has been plain to see.’ Unfortunately, Brendan’s experience does not chime with my own observations in and around Edinburgh and differs from most available anecdotal evidence.

Although the Telegraph reported this week on ‘The rise of the anti-maskers’, I fear the heretics are massively outnumbered by fanatical face-coverers. By that I do not mean sceptics who acquiesce to avoid being either confronted or collared; I refer instead to the sudden emergence of a brainwashed battalion who are convinced that the indefinite wearing of a face-nappy is a virtuous act, one which on July 24 (or two weeks earlier in Scotland) magically began to save lives.

Woe betide anyone who dissents, such as Ann Widdecombe. In her Daily Express column on July 15, Ann predicted that ‘mask-haters will, as will I, avoid the shops as much as possible’. To prevent this loss of business, she also mischievously suggested: ‘Perhaps shops should allow certain hours when the mask dissenters can shop unmuzzled in the same way as they have allocated special times to the elderly.’

On a day when there must have been tumbleweed blowing around its offices, earlier this week the New European belatedly publicised the ardent Brexiteer’s throwaway thought. No doubt the Remainers’ rag was chuffed to provoke a slew of predictably personalised rancid responses, for example:

Also, two weeks after it had first appeared in print, Channel 5 used Ann’s idiosyncratic idea as a topic on Wednesday’s Jeremy Vine Show.

The programme’s three guests unanimously derided opponents of compulsory coverings. This prompted a lively exchange with caller Ian from London, who put up a defiant defence of his non-compliance.

Anthea Turner repeats the fatuous comparison with seatbelts. Jasmine Dotiwala (me neither) regurgitates the infantile assertion that rebels such as Ian should sign a waiver to decline treatment by the NHS (peace be upon it), as though a flimsy facecloth is a life-saving prophylactic. And James Max, the daybreak presenter on talkRADIO, haughtily harrumphs at Ian: ‘You ask why we’re calling these people idiots . . . have a listen back to your call and see what you think of what you just said. It makes absolutely no sense.’

Unfortunately, refuseniks such as caller Ian are greatly outnumbered by eager endorsers, exemplified by Jeremy Vine’s tractable trio, whose enthusiasm for mandatory masking is liable to embolden the Government to expand and prolong their use.

Much of the public will, like pompous pundit James Max, ‘much rather listen to the medical experts’. However, the ‘experts’ whom they heed presumably are those scientific advisers who have vacillated to suit their political masters – a collective which, at least so far, does not include the courageously resistant chief medical officer for Wales.

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Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver is an accountant who lives in East Lothian.

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