In the fortnight before the UK went into lockdown, Boris Johnson appeared in a video chat with Dr Jenny Harries to answer a series of questions about coronavirus. The deputy chief medical officer went over the regular symptoms, the low risk of large gatherings and the cons of face masks for all. She told a nodding prime minister that masks should only be worn if a medical professional tells you to, otherwise you could contaminate the mask and transfer the virus: “It’s really not a good idea and it doesn’t help.”
Fast forward four months and that advice – along with several other parts of their conversation – has gone out of the window. The government has announced that face coverings will soon become compulsory in shops and supermarkets. Following in the footsteps of Scotland, and after a weekend of mixed messages from ministers, the new rule will come into effect on Friday 24 July, with a £100 fine for anyone caught not wearing one.
The shift is a reminder of how much Johnson’s outlook has changed as a result of the virus. The freedom-loving prime minister, who once railed against booster seats and the nanny state, is now launching an anti-obesity drive and a law on face coverings. It’s a journey that has not gone down well with everyone in his party.
While No 10 has pointed to growing evidence that face masks protect individuals, the guidance is the latest in a series of decisions where Downing Street has opted for the cautious route, to the annoyance of many Tory MPs.
There are unionist Tories who view the move as a win for Nicola Sturgeon. It’s not so much the pros or cons of a mask that bothers them – it’s the fact this is one of only a handful of times the UK government has followed Holyrood. At a time when support for Scottish independence is on the rise and ministers are increasingly nervous, there’s a worry this indirectly implies that Sturgeon is the more competent leader. “If we were going to do it, we should have done it at the last lockdown easing; we just look like we’re playing catch-up,” sighs one MP.
The choreography of the decision doesn’t help. Johnson hinted on Friday that a change in advice was coming, but Michael Gove then told Andrew Marr on Sunday that wearing a mask should be a matter of “basic good manners” rather than an order.
In truth, these two comments hint at a wider disagreement over masks that centres on behaviour, rather than medicine. Speak to any cabinet minister and they will all agree that while the exact details may not be known yet, masks don’t make the situation medically worse. Where their opinions differ is the effect that face masks have on an individual’s behaviour.
With the British public proving more enthusiastic in adopting lockdown measures, and more cautious in coming back out than their European neighbours, there is a focus in government on how to get the public to go along with plans to return to some sense of normality. The view in the Treasury is that the UK is a uniquely consumption-based society, so in order to turn things around you need to get people to a point where they are willing to go out and spend.
The former prime minister David Cameron turned to the “nudge unit” to try to change the public’s behaviour, but Johnson is taking a much more draconian approach. The hope of those in No 10 in favour of making masks mandatory is that they are an important step in building public confidence.
Tory MPs report receiving emails from elderly constituents in the last few weeks saying they are too worried to leave the house, as not enough people are wearing masks. “We can open up everything with free vouchers, but if people don’t trust us they are not going to come back out,” one MP says. The idea is that if you fix this, more people will go out and get back to some sense of normality.
But there are plenty of Tory MPs who take the opposite view. Already fed up with No 10’s slow pace of lockdown easing, they view this as the latest anti-Conservative announcement from a so-called Tory government that hasn’t been doing much to meet its name tag of late.
“The Tory old guard are not happy,” says a member of the government. “They think it will stop people using businesses normally with a reminder of the virus everywhere.” There’s also a worry it could be a slippery slope with pubs and communal spaces next. One such MP, Christopher Chope, has said such a ban would mean he would be unlikely to shop. Others have been quick to tell constituents that they had no say in the decision.
Less outspoken Tory MPs are privately grumpy that with polling suggesting the public is largely in support of face masks, this could be another policy driven by focus groups rather than cold hard science. “Where is the clear evidence? At some point we need to grow a backbone and tell the public what we’re doing and why, not ask the public what we should do and when,” vents one.
But for all the muddled delivery, the majority view in the government is that being too cautious is a better option than being too quick. Recent scenes in the US, where the number of coronavirus cases has spiked following the easing of lockdown measures, have made government figures who had been pushing for a faster easing think twice.
This policy is aimed at changing behaviour, so the test will be whether more people go out to work and spend in the weeks and months to come. If they do, No 10 won’t lose sleep over a few complaints from Tory MPs. The problem for Johnson is if he takes the heat from his own party – and the policy still fails to have the desired effect on the country.
• Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor