July 31, 2021
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Would you wear a mask if you didn’t have to?

Will you still wear a mask when the Covid restrictions are finally lifted?

This has become a hot issue in England, where Boris Johnson is preparing to abandon all the Covid rules at one go. It has divided that country between those who cry “Right on Boris – give us back our liberty!” and those who advise caution, saying, “We’ve put up with this for 17 months, let’s not blow it all by being hasty”.

A member of Sage, Britain’s equivalent of Nphet, has gone a bit further. Susan Michie got social media hopping when she declared that, in some settings, mask-wearing should be enforced “forever”.
It would protect against flu and other seasonal infections and was “no big deal”, she said.

I would have scoffed at this idea a few months back but now, with the end of masks a real possibility, I am not so sure.

Masks are routinely worn in Japan, China and several other Asian countries, by people who have a cold or what a man I used to work with called “a bit of an aul flu”.

That man infected a deskload of his colleagues every winter – and that’s what responsible Asians try to avoid. They wear masks on public transport and in shops and public offices, not to protect themselves but to safeguard their friends and neighbours.

Maybe, for Ireland, it’s a step too far. But we do a lot of things in the name of safety that once would have been considered ridiculous.

When I was a kid I never wore a bicycle helmet. Nobody did. I don’t think such things even existed except in the pelotons of professional cycling.

They existed by the time my children took to two wheels but they were rare. My daughters never wore them and it never occurred to me that I was being a bad father by not insisting that they should. Today they wouldn’t dream of letting their own children on a bike if they weren’t wearing a helmet.

My first car had no seatbelts and, even when they became a standard fitting, people were very casual about wearing them. I never found it a problem myself, but a lot of young men seemed to regard seatbelts as a slight on their masculinity.

And that was particularly risky back then, because drivers were often drunk. I don’t mean over the legal limit; there was no legal limit. But you could be ‘drunk in charge’ , which meant you probably had trouble seeing the car, never mind steering it. We used to make jokes about it – ‘you drive, you’re too drunk to sing’.

Nobody thinks that’s funny now, thank God. Responsible people – and, really, that is most of us – put on our seatbelts, don’t drink and drive and drive, and insist that children wear helmets if they are cycling.

We pick up poop if our dogs shit in the street and we don’t smoke in pubs. In most parts of the country we only burn smokeless fuel. And we don’t think we are entitled to shout racial insults at people or discriminate against them on grounds of gender or religion.

Apart from cycle helmets, all of the restrictions I have mentioned are enforced by law. Most people approve of them, but I don’t think we would adhere to them if it wasn’t for the law. It is not so much that we fear legal sanction, more that the sanction gives us a defence against accusations of being wimps or politically correct.

And that’s why I think Boris Johnson is getting it wrong with his plan to make Covid restrictions a matter of personal choice.

I have criticised our Government for being too cautious but I think Mr Johnson’s idea of throwing off all the shackles in one day is foolhardy in the face of a Delta variant that is spreading very fast, even if it is not putting many people in hospital.

I’m still wrestling with my opening question: would I wear a mask if that restriction was ended? For the moment, I’d rather the Government left me with no choice.

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