Coronavirus: On masks and vaccines, we must respect each other

Coronavirus: On masks and vaccines, we must respect each other

Last Friday night I did something I have rarely had the opportunity to do since the pandemic hit: I arranged to join a large group of friends and colleagues in a packed pub. No superfluous meals, no shivering outside wishing we were inside, no pretending a pub is a sit-down cafe. Just a normal session.

“So what?” ought to be the correct response to such a banal revelation. But in its own small way and at a personal level, heading back into a packed pub for the first time in almost two years is a reasonable waypoint on the road back to normality. And normality is what businesses and people crave as much as anything.

I arrived late in a taxi and wearing a mask. Still donning my mask from the journey, I flung open the door of the bar. It felt as if 200 heads at once turned towards me, the masked invader standing at the entrance. Sergio Leone could have written the scene.

I couldn’t see another face covering, apart from on the chins of a few of the bar staff. I hesitated for the briefest of moments: I put it down to conditioning.

Then I thought: “So what?” I quickly whipped away my own face covering and squeezed through the crowd, doing the little sidewards pub shuffle that we all use to get through a throng of people, and which hasn’t been a requirement to reach an Irish bar counter since March 15th, 2020. I had a choice and I made it.

It took less than five minutes to get back into the swing of things. I soon learned from many of my companions that they too had hesitated briefly in the same way when they arrived. Yet there we all were, swilling pints a few minutes later and enjoying interacting normally, seemingly comfortable with the risk and uninhibited by the fact there are still 10,000 cases of the virus every day.

Normal hesitancy

This week, as people argue over the merits of dropping the Government’s mask mandate in most indoor locations, it feels as if much of Irish society is standing there in a pub door, with an Ennio Morricone tune twanging in the background and a fly walking down the wall. Hesitation is perfectly normal.

But there are effective vaccines now. The illness is much milder and, at some stage, we are all going to have to recalibrate our own approach to risk. Leave your mask on if you want to and feel free to do so unmolested.

But if society as a whole isn’t prepared to embrace a new approach to the rules now, then when? There is nothing wrong with seeking a return to normality and occasionally we should be prepared to push for it.

There are several decent arguments for why some people should continue to wear masks: it does reduce the risk of catching the virus and there is still a lot of it out there. But those arguments are no longer sufficient justification for why it should remain mandatory for all.

England removed its mandatory mask mandate for all but health settings three weeks ago and, so far, it appears to be on the same downwards trajectory in its infection rates as before. Scotland kept stricter mask rules and appears to have harvested no benefit from it.

Crucially, the UK’s health services are under no greater pressure than they were before. That should provide us with some comfort.

Trade unions for teachers, transport and retail workers have expressed reservations. It is their job to be cautious when it comes to the welfare of their members. But surely trade union members frequent bars and restaurants too. The habit of wearing a mask while walking around in most hospitality settings has seemed like nonsense for weeks now. Aerosol particles don’t dissipate as soon as you take your seat. Wearing a mask only on the way to the toilet is ludicrous, and we all know it. So why do it?

Risk reassessed

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