Thursday, 16 July 2020

Climate of fear

Earlier this week, the government announced, after much speculation, that they were going to require people to wear face coverings in shops in England from a week on Friday. This seems a somewhat bizarre decision, given that the virus has pretty much burnt itself out now, and people have been visiting shops right through the peak of the pandemic without them. In any case, many experts consider that masks are of very limited effectiveness.

The impression is very much that they have done this in response to public opinion, with many opinion polls showing a clear majority in favour of compulsory mask wearing. However, this isn’t borne out by people’s actual behaviour on the ground. From my observation, well below a quarter of supermarket customers are wearing masks. It seems that many people want the government to force them to do something they’re unwilling to do of their own volition. This is rather akin to those wealthy people who call for higher taxes, but never actually write out any cheques to HMRC themselves, which they’re perfectly entitled to do.

It’s important to note that the rules refer to “face coverings” rather than specifically to purpose-made masks, so it’s perfectly possible to use ones made from old scarves or T-shirts. How effective those will be is obviously highly questionable. No specification is given, so no objection could be raised to wearing the plague doctor costume shown above, or to flimsy items which were only intended as decorative costume adornments. On the other hand, the Welsh government has decided that all public transport passengers will be required to wear three-ply masks, which will need considerable skills in needlework if you want to make them yourself.

The way masks are actually worn also leaves much to be desired. In theory, the disposable ones that seem to be most popular are only supposed to be worn once. Take it off, for whatever reason, and you really should put a fresh one on. But how often is that going to be adhered to, especially since many of the mask zealots in the media keep telling us how easy it is to slip them off and on again? And how often are the home-made ones going to be washed in practice? Once a week if you’re lucky. Plus, the actual disposal of all the disposable masks is going to create an enormous waste problem. It’s also noticeable that all of them seem to have been made in China!

Many people have genuine medical reasons for being exempt from wearing a face covering. For example, experts have warned that people with asthma should not wear masks. But it is likely that they will have to endure bullying and harassment, both from staff and other customers, if they turn up at a shop without one. And many deaf people depend on lip-reading to communicate with others, and are going to be made to feel even more isolated.

People may well grudgingly put up with wearing a mask when nipping round the supermarket for essentials. But it makes going out shopping a much less enjoyable experience, and will act as a serious deterrent to more extended expeditions for leisure shopping, especially for clothing. A month after “non-essential” shops were allowed to reopen, High Streets are still seeing greatly reduced trade, and making shoppers wear masks is likely to bring any hopes of revival to a juddering halt.

Fortunately, so far pubs and restaurants have been excluded from the requirement, but what’s to guarantee that this won’t change in the future? After all, it has already happened in some Continental countries. After only just having reopened, and still struggling with reduced capacity, that would to deal a fresh body blow to the pub trade. Going to the pub is supposed to be an enjoyable leisure experience, not something you’re expected to grimly endure. And the blow to town centre shopping will have a further knock-on effect on pubs.

Some have argued that compulsory mask-wearing will encourage retail activity by instilling a greater sense of confidence, but surely human nature suggests it will have precisely the opposite effect. Far from representing any kind of return to normality, it will be an indicator of an ongoing climate of fear and anxiety.

No specific end date has been set for the measure, or any set of criteria against it will be judged. Indeed, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has stated that it may have to continue until a vaccine has been found, which could be never. As the great Milton Friedman said, “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program”. Remember that the afternoon closure of pubs, brought in as an emergency measure during the First World War, lasted over seventy years, and income tax, originally introduced to finance the Napoleonic Wars, is still with us.

34 comments:

  1. Personally I'm not immortal - or immune to respiratory infections - and I don't think viruses do "burn out". Covid's still killing around 500 people a week, and there's no reason the death rate can't go up as well as down, particularly when the effects of the pubs reopening are eventually felt (the people who died yesterday will have been infected in mid- to late June).

    So I'm always glad to see people wearing masks when I'm in an enclosed space - the less other people's spit circulates in air I'm going to breathe, the happier I am! On a shopping trip the other week I experienced the opposite of what you suggested; being surrounded by people without masks was what precisely made one shop "a much less enjoyable experience". I wear (home-made) masks myself - can't expect other people to do something I'm not doing - and it doesn't inconvenience me particularly; incidentally, I put them in the wash after a day's use, like underwear.

    There are enclosed spaces where people don't or can't wear masks, and the inside of a pub is one of them; I'm still avoiding spending any length of time in those. Doesn't stop me going to the pub, though, weather permitting.

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    1. I'm happy to wear a mask too in shops, but I am astonished (it is being rightly looked at now I hear) that England can never have a nil return for Covid-19 deaths, as unlike the rest of the UK, once you die (and no time limit is currently set) after being tested for Covid-19, when recovered, even if you are killed by a bus, then you count as a Covid death. In the rest of the UK, after 28 days, then you are killed by a bus, not by Covid. Common sense.

      You may or may not find the subsequent reduction in daily deaths reassuring.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie17 July 2020 at 18:20

      Tandleman,
      But if you've recovered from coronavirus then a year later are killed by a bus while crossing the road after having a half pint in a pub is the death from coronavirus or is it alcohol related ?

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    3. The figures for how many deaths are attributed to Covid-19 is open to a lot of interpretation, and each country measures them differently. The most reliable numbers to look at are the total UK deaths, and the increase compared to previous years. Those figures cannot be fudged and after all it doesn't really matter if you die from Covid itself, or because the lockdown caused your cancer treatment to be stopped, only one thing has changed compared to previous years and that is Covid-19.

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    4. But the non-Covid excess deaths were not caused by Covid, they were caused by the government response to Covid. By concentrating all your efforts on tackling one health issue, more people die from others that are left untreated. It's a whack-a-mole approach to public health.

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  2. The clue surely is "no specification is given," so as Mudgie rightly points out, this latest government edict is little more than gesture politics. My wife and I thought we'd give masks a "dummy run," so yesterday we each wore one whilst shopping at our local supermarket. It was not a pleasant experience; breathing was considerably harder, and in addition our specs kept misting up.

    If there was some real, hard scientific proof that masks significantly reduce the spread of Covid-19, then I would gladly wear one, but most of the evidence is at best, anecdotal and, given the varied nature of many of the “masks” being worn in our communities at present, we'll never really know for certain.

    There is some evidence that the virus might be burning itself out though, but not a reason that many will wish to hear. Like all opportunistic pathogens, Coronavirus has disproportionately affected those classed as vulnerable, with a sadly predictable high level of fatalities.

    It’s almost as if the virus is deliberately targeting this particular group, but this assumes this string of RNA possesses intelligence, which of course it doesn’t. Unfortunately, “weeding out” the weak and the vulnerable is nature's way of ensuring the survival of the fittest. Although this comes across as callous, particularly to all those poor souls adversely affected, it is what happens in natural populations.

    As a largely caring species, us humans do our best to try and mitigate against "nature." It is to our credit that we do this, but unfortunately until a vaccine is discovered (there have been some encouraging developments here, recently), this particular Coronavirus is here to stay, and covering our faces is unlikely to make a lot of difference.

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    1. Killing weak people in their seventies and eighties who have already produced children does nothing to ensure the survival of the fittest
      In natural populations the weak and vulnerable die before they are able to breed and produce a new generation of weak and vulnerable people.
      CV19 not killing the young means it is not part of the natural selection process.

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  3. Vaccines take ten years in development for good reason. Nobody should be in a rush to accept one rushed through the proper protocol, for something no worse than a bad flu season.

    The so called statistics on it have been inflated too. The lockdown will surely kill more.

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    1. Covid-19 is a lot worse than a bad flu season. In the worst year on record flu killed 28,000 people in the UK. The average is about 17,000 each winter. Covid-19 killed double that number already and has only infected a small part of the population. Unchecked it would probably have killed 500,000 people in the UK alone.

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    2. 500,000 deaths was a somewhat hyperbolic upper boundary projection from the discredited Neil Ferguson. It wasn't remotely a likely outcome. Sweden has done no worse than the UK, and probably better, without anything near such a severe and economy-destroying lockdown.

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  4. Spot on. On the whole you have the bed-wetters who are lefty, and a smaller group of centre-right/socially conservative who would jump into a well if the authorities told them.

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  5. There are lots of things we do at a cost or inconvenience to ourselves that benefit others or a wider community. We benefit from the conventions that we all accept when others go along with those norms. Such is the cost of a civic society and such are the benefits of it. I wear trousers out of social convention and when I fart on a pub bench seat the next punter does not sit on my skid. We accept we should not act as a nuisance to others in public spaces curtailing our own freedoms. Whether that is noise, smell or any other behaviours that may cause others problems.

    As the economy opens more social interactions occur. Social distance is not always possible. Vulnerable people from the 1st of August are no longer isolating and re-joining us. We all have a responsibility to take precautions not to spread the virus. Sad to see so many libertarians bang on about their rights without accepting their responsibilities. It not a great advert. The best argument for freedom is that it results in a better, happier more prosperous society than that which the trots would like to impose on us. That means accepting the responsibilities that go along with rights.

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    1. Always good to see someone set out the case for socialism, Cookie :-)

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    2. So concern for other people is Socialism and thus to be derided?
      When I was a lad even Tories like that nice Mr McMillan were socialists and were only derided by socialists of a different colour.

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    3. Ah yes, socialism. The wonderful system where the individual has to subordinate their interests to the will of the State, for the common good. Which the State decides.

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    4. The idea that enlightened self interest is socialism is peculiar to say the least. We evolved as a tribal co-operative species. We formulated rules to make these societies work in the form of conventions, rules, laws, morality and religion. None of this is socialism. Capitalism as a system is basically a system of law enshrining property rights and laws and conventions of personal behaviour to enable prosperity within a civic society. It isn't freedom. It is just more freedom than other systems.

      If we all wear masks in shops we make make shops safer for each other and safer for the most vulnerable. If we distance in pubs, masks are not necessary. It would be nice if we didn't need to enforce this with laws. If we all accepted basic decency towards each other and when needed, put on a mask. That is a civic society. We likely need laws because of folk like mudge who values his personal freedom more than the health and welfare of others and we need to protect ourselves from him.

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    5. I think that what you are describing is more communism than socialism.
      But the real flaw in your post is that you speak of the "State" as if it were an independent entity created out of the primeval swamp.
      Whereas us enlightened people :-) see the state as the embodiment of the collective will of the people and under the control of the people (hint: universal franchise).
      My own politics, whilst left leaning, see the thirty years after the war (my youth and early manhood) when we had a mixed economy which both protected the vulnerable but encouraged individual enterprise as the best. Currently the "State" has become overweening in, curiously under a right wing government. The technical word for that situation begins with the letter F and was quite popular in pre-war Europe.

      I know that this is a beer blog so I don't expect you to publish this.
      But to stay on topic I must say that the pub closure has encouraged me to try lots of bottled beers, something I rarely did before the lock-down. My general conclusion is that the contents of any bottle with a name that you might see on a pump clip in a pub will disappoint. And that, unsurprisingly the best bottled beers come from Belgium
      As a bed wetter who is lefty I shall continue to explore bottled beers rather than sit outside a pub menaced by second hand smoke.

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    6. There is no menace from second hand smoke outside pubs. It's just that you don't like it.

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    7. Lord knows I've been critical enough of the current government on numerous issues, especially their response to the Covid crisis, but to accuse them of Fascism really is the most unhinged fuckwittery. Anything else along those lines will go straight in the bin.

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  6. Professor Pie-Tin17 July 2020 at 13:59

    I have the mother of all gin hangovers today.I was so pissed off last night I attacked a bottle of Gordon's with gusto.
    The Irish government has postponed next Monday's re-opening of wet-led pubs until August 10 and suggested they may even keep them closed beyond that date.
    This is despite infection rates only averaging around 15 a day and hardly anyone dying from C-19 in a population of five million.
    Ludicrously, pubs that sell food have been open for weeks.They can also sell alcohol provided a meal costing a minimum of €9 is purchased.
    No-one has yet given a plausible explanation as to why a €9 meal will provide you with protection against the virus.
    And there is absolutely no evidence that these pubs have produced a single case of C-19.
    Meanwhile, Ireland remains the only country in Europe where visitors and holidaymakers returning from abroad from any country have to self-isolate for two weeks.
    Including countries with a vastly superior record on infections and deaths during the pandemic.
    The dreaded R number has risen above 1 in certain areas but the idea of local lockdowns hasn't been considered.
    If you think Britain's politicians are poor you should see the shower of 3rd-rate cretins they have running the country here.
    After they took 140 days to get round to forming a government after the general election.
    They really couldn't organise a piss-up in a barely working brewery.

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    1. What happens if you cross and recross the border between Northern Ireland and Eire,do you have to self-isolate for 2 weeks in each country?

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    2. People in the north used to go south to fill up with petrol if they could, as prices were lower - certainly enough to justify the detour. I remember going with a colleague from Belfast to somewhere like Fermanagh and thinking he was taking an odd route, until we got to a petrol station just south of the border and all was explained. I got the impression that the petrol station survived on, and was probably built for, cross border traffic.

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  7. Friday afternoon tension releasing quizz...which pub?
    https://i.postimg.cc/7PRHRh5n/20191021-123415.jpg

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    1. I think you'll have to give us a clue. Looks like a proper pub, though.

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    2. The clues are, it's in the north and the lay-out is quite narrow and long.

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    3. Crown Posada?

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    4. I recognised the style of the picture on the wall as being the same as that of one I remember in the Posada of Ho Chi Minh or of his likeness, and that swung it for me. Can't really remember the upholstery...

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    5. Anom., upholstery is green leather, someone said leatherette but I don't think so. The pictures on the wall are funny, I like the one with the big red bulbous nose. They have a vintage record player and that is the only music, my favourite record there is the Lindisfarne's Fog on the Tyne...

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    6. Thanks very much - keep 'em coming now and then, I was a nice diversion.

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  8. Three layers of fine mesh should be OK for travel in Wales, then. How are they going to check it - ask you to take it off so that they can inspect it?

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  9. I have no faith in the government's reaction to coronavirus, and in any case I'm an absolute non-believer in the disease being as serious as we are being led to believe so I will not be wearing a mask. I've followed all the rules up to now, because I believe strongly in the rule of law, but being forced to wear a mask is an intrusion too far. Coming soon to a town near you will be panic buying of masks, and inflated prices for said masks. That leads to an important point: if the government want us to wear masks, they should provide the masks.

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  10. Here's an excellent article by Ben Pile on the government's Covid response, with specific reference to their mask policy:

    The government has lost control

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