John Harris

Journalist & Author

To mask or not to mask? That shouldn’t be the question | John Harris

In shifting Covid risk to individuals in an already battered society, the British state has set the scene for countless futile conflicts

England has now entered the strangest phase to date of its Covid experience. Though the health secretary insisted, in a tweet he eventually deleted, that we must not “cower from” the virus, the contradiction between the lifting of restrictions and most epidemiological wisdom sits in the midst of our national life like a dull headache. The same prime minister who promised his ideological soulmates a new dawn of liberty is now embracing vaccine passports, and reportedly facing the prospect of defeat in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, references to “personal responsibility” have brought a new unease to everyday life, as the government reverts to type and does what Tory administrations usually do, transferring risk from the state to individuals.

Wearing a mask now feels a bit like putting on a badge. On what the rightwing press rather laughably called “freedom day”, I did some shopping at my local Asda, observed a masked-to-umasked ratio of about 70:30, and sensed – or thought I sensed – the crackle of judgment and mistrust, passing between those who were sticking with face coverings and those who had decided to go without. Two days later, I was in Stoke-on-Trent, where the ratio in a huge Tesco was more like 60:40 in favour of masking up. Despite announcements over the PA advising people to behave as if restrictions were still in place, the fact that some were sticking to the old rules while others were not felt like a matter of dull normality.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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