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The government has finally acted on face masks, but there is more to do

Should wearing a mask be mandatory, or voluntary? This is the argument that's been raging over recent weeks, especially as more shops have re-opened and the UK's comparatively high COVID-19 infection rates persist - even if it it clear the virus in receding. Yet, weeks after some European countries, we are only now being told that we will have to 'mask-up' to visit shops. 

At this point, the evidence seems clear that masks are other face coverings work. They reduce the transmission of the virus from infected people, and may reduce the risk of healthy wearers getting the disease. Yet, until next week, wearing one has only been mandatory on public transport. 

This seems baffling. Given the severe changes we have all had to make to our daily lives already, and the sacrifices we have already made, if wearing a mask has any affect it surely is a small price to pay to bring back some semblance of normality more quickly. Anyone who has been in a shop in England since the start of lockdown will tell you that a huge proportion of people have not bought into this yet. 

The government's messaging on face coverings has been blamed by many. Perhaps hamstrung by a lack of evidence at the start of the pandemic, and perhaps by concerns over increased consumer demand impacting NHS supply, they have been unquestionably inconsistent. From initially saying that we shouldn't wear a mask, to producing advice on how to make a homemade face mask but not fully explaining when it should be worn, to telling us to use our 'common sense' - only days before mandating their use. 

Initial pressures on NHS supply don't seem to explain the way this awkward confusion has persisted. To get a bit of insight into other pressures, I messaged a handful of backbench Tory MPs who may have a greater understanding of the political pressures the government faces. One said to me that they believed that the government had hesitated to pull the trigger because 'masks can be quite expensive for the poorest families in society. About £1 per day per person can go a long way'. Another citied the backlash against mask-wearing amongst the conservative commentators - and apparent culture war raging on the issue in the USA. 

Although I did not contact him, Tory MP Desmond Swayne today seemingly proved the second right. He told parliament that mandating face masks was a 'monstrous imposition against myself and a number of outraged and reluctant constituents'. 

They may be uncomfortable and unpleasant, but they are necessary. It is now up to the government to figure out how to enforce this edict - through ensuring a terminal velocity of fines are issued to transgressors, and through making sure people are clear about these restrictions. I think its also important to think about the other potential political force acting on the prime minister right now - over the next week, government must find a way to deliver free or nearly-free face coverings to millions of the poorest families in the UK, which will be no easy fete. 

Clearly there is a backlash on the right, and clearly confusion about why it took so long, but this is a positive step from the government. Now we must hope that they have done enough to guarantee supply chains and support schemes for those who need help. 

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