The one thing above all else that I was looking forward to on so-called Freedom Day – which was supposed to be this coming Monday, July 19 – was taking every face mask from various pockets and bags, making a pile of them and setting them alight, and then dancing a jig of ecstatic joy around the rising flames.
But now it seems that Freedom Day is not quite what we have been led to expect, for reasons I will explain in a moment, and I am going to have to postpone my little bonfire ritual for a while yet.
This is a pity because, of all the restrictions we have had to put up with over the last 16 months, I’ve found the compulsory wearing of a face mask to be one of the most onerous.
I’ve put up with the other restrictions largely without complaint (which admittedly is unusual for me).
I’ve not seen family and friends for months on end while staying away from the pub, the cinema and the theatre.
I’ve become used to working from home, suffering bouts of “Zoom fatigue”, and on the few occasions I have commuted into work I’ve had the surreal experience of being the only passenger in a normally packed carriage.
For long months we were even banned from going to church, and when we were allowed back we were forbidden from singing a hymn inside – although we could hear people singing in the pub across the road.
I’ve tolerated all of this, but the mask wearing was the toughest of all for me.
This is because covering your face is dehumanising. Seeing people’s expressions is an essential part of human interaction.
With a face mask you cannot see if someone is smiling or scowling, and if they have literally got their tongue in their cheek you will miss it.
In fact much of the nuance, humour, sarcasm and irony – all the things that make conversation interesting – is lost when you have to wear a mask.
And for those hard of hearing – and I am getting there – not being able to lip read has made communication especially difficult.
So for all these reasons I was looking forward to Monday when the government said the legal requirement to wear a face covering in shops, on public transport and in enclosed spaces would come to an end. Hurrah!
Not so fast. There was an immediate backlash against the plans. London Mayor Sadiq Khan insisted that wearing a mask would still be compulsory on public transport, and West Yorkshire
Mayor Tracy Brabin said she would mandate face coverings in bus stations, although she does not have the power to impose them on buses and trains.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps added to the confusion by backing Khan’s decision and saying that although the legal requirement was ending, he always “expected, and indeed, wanted” train and bus companies to insist that passengers wear a mask.
Many retailers, including Sainsbury’s and Waterstones, are also encouraging customers to wear a mask.
The result is a mess and recipe for confusion and conflict. Already there are reports of bus drivers in Sheffield facing hostility from passengers when they tell them to wear a mask. Expect lots of angry arguments at the entrances to shops and pubs and on buses and trains.
Incidentally, the science on mask wearing has changed dramatically over the last 16 months. At the beginning of the pandemic several ex-students of mine sent me masks through the post as they had heard there was a shortage in the UK (many Chinese students have been wearing masks for years).
At the time I investigated and the consensus among scientists, including organisations such as the World Health Organisation, was emphatic – wearing a mask made absolutely no difference to your chance of catching or spreading the disease.
A few months later those same scientists turned on a sixpence and they now insist the mask wearing is essential to stop the spread of the disease. I am told this is because we now have a better understanding of how the virus can be spread by tiny particles suspended in the air, especially in poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
Either way, I’m not going to start arguing with shop workers and bus drivers who are only trying to do their jobs. So I’ll wear a mask if I’m asked to.
But one day, in the not too distant future, that little bonfire will be lit.