The pro-mask eccentrics are squealing again

Energised by zero-covid ideology & woolly NHS guidance

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It’s that season again. As we wave goodbye to summer and enter the coughs-and-cold season – where sniffles are, inevitably, more common – the usual pro-mask suspects are, once again squealing for our attention.

In what could reasonably be construed as a coordinated effort, the push began on the 24th  of August with the publication of a Royal Society paper claiming to have ‘unequivocally’ found that face coverings reduce covid-transmission. In keeping with the previous covid-related output of this once-esteemed institution – for example, its central involvement in the imposition of mask mandates in June 2020 –  this fantastical conclusion was based on a splatter of poor-quality observational studies, with no consideration of the harms of community masking. Nonetheless, emboldened by the double whammy of this pseudoscience and the naming of ‘Pirola’ (the latest covid variant to roll off the viral detectives’ production line), we again have to endure the collective howl of the pro-mask eccentrics.

George Monbiot at the Guardian and Tom Whipple at the Times have, predictably, both returned to scribbling about the value of masks. An odd-ball German doctor who refuses to discard his face covering, irrespective of the epidemiological milieu, has attracted much media attention. And Independent SAGE member Professor Trish Greenhalgh – who believes that science is the ‘enemy of good policy’ – is back to tweeting ‘it’s once again time to MASK UP’.

For the benefit of those who have only recently dragged themselves away from the mainstream media propaganda channels, let us repeat the reality check. It has long been recognised that masks offer no appreciable protection against viral infections (see here for a review). We knew this in 2020 from a gold-standard Cochrane review, an analysis of 14 studies on influenza and a healthcare investigation that concluded that masks “may paradoxically lead to more transmissions”. We knew this in 2021 based on the Danish mask study and two comprehensive evidence reviews (here and here). We knew this in 2022 in relation to primary schools and universities, and a debunking of premature pro-mask conclusions drawn from the Bangladesh study. And – as if more evidence was needed – at the start of 2023 we had the latest Cochrane review, yet again concluding that covering our faces with cloth and plastic does not significantly reduce the likelihood of contracting respiratory viral infections.

Being charitable, one might be inclined to excuse those journalists and scientists who – blinded by their well-meaning ideologies – continue to regurgitate the pro-mask nonsense. Less forgivable are the actions of a few healthcare outliers, such as Sheffield Hospitals Foundation NHS Trust, who have re-imposed mask requirements on their staff, patients, and visitors.

HART believes that the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is primarily culpable for this return of ineffectual and dehumanising masks in a minority of healthcare settings. In their guidance (last updated in March 2023), the UKHSA – while broadly recommending a return to pre-pandemic normality – continues to allow a return of the mask requirement where there is a local appetite for it. Predictably, the mask zealots ensconced within the infection control departments of a few Trusts have exploited this ambiguity, while NHS chiefs cite the woolly guidance as a reason for their inaction.

Such a dynamic was recently illustrated in the response to an open letter from Smile Free (a campaign group opposed to mask mandates) to NHS Chief Executives, asking them why they were condoning the return of face coverings in a handful of their organisations. Dame Ruth May (Chief Nursing Officer), responding on behalf of NHS England, ignored the wealth of evidence demonstrating their ineffectiveness and explicitly cited the bit of the UKHSA guidance stating it was ‘a matter of local discretion’. Consequently, patients in Sheffield and a few other localities, will be forced to cover their faces with ineffective strips of cloth and plastic while enduring a suboptimal service.    

The UKHSA urgently need to revise their guidance so as to actively discourage a few of their mono-focused infection control personnel from creating this postcode lottery. How much evidence do they need that masking is counterproductive? A study in April of this year specifically concluded that mask requirements in a London hospital made ‘no discernible difference’ to covid transmission rates. And even the UKHSA’s own recently published literature review described the quality of the evidence for mask effectiveness as, at best, ‘very weak’.

The pro-mask germaphobes and ideologues will grasp every opportunity to try and compel people to hide their faces again. Thankfully, at present, the muzzle mafia constitute an eccentric minority; long may that continue.  

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