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The requirement to wear face coverings in law will be lifted.

However, the Government expects and recommends that people wear face coverings in crowded areas such as public transport.

[...] As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, it is important that we all use personal judgement [...]

-- Guidance: Coronavirus: how to stay safe and help prevent the spread from 19 July.

The government told us they hoped to see this change in law. As a result, representatives were asked what their personal choice would be. I remember a minister said they would not wear a mask. In fact, three different ministers said they would not. The latest time I heard this was on July 5. This was the same day as a TV briefing from the Prime Minister, where he mentioned the change in law.

Question: On July 6, the Health Secretary was interviewed by the Radio 4 Today programme. Was this the first time a UK government minister said they would wear a mask, if it was no longer legally compulsory?

  1. Timeline
  2. Explanation

1. Timeline

  • 2021-06-24: Chancellor of the Treasury talks to Times newspaper. 'Mr Sunak was asked if he expected to stop wearing a mask when it became legal not do so. "Yes, as soon as possible," he replied.' [BBC News].
  • 2021-06-24: Environment Secretary says '"But the objective of that final stage is to remove the legal requirement to do these things." Asked if he would continue to wear a face covering beyond that point, the minister replied: "I wouldn't, no.' [Sky News]
  • 2021-07-05: Housing Secretary appears on BBC Marr show, and 'Asked on Sky News about whether he would stop wearing his face mask if the rules allowed, Mr Jenrick said he would, because he did not particularly want to wear one' [BBC News].
  • 2021-07-05: Prime Minister gives TV briefing. [Number 10 Youtube channel]. 'The prime minister has confirmed that all legislation regarding face coverings will be repealed at step four of the government's road map'. [Sky News]
  • 2021-07-06: Health secretary interviewed on Radio 4 Today. "If I was on crowded tube in London I would wear a mask". [Huffington Post]

2. Explanation

I.e. there was some question about why I ask this, in relation to politics. My answer is probably patronising. I didn't fully understand the comments, and I expected it would be difficult for me to improve my understanding of the comments any other way.

I am interested in the government policy about people wearing masks. I was surprised by the relatively close juxtaposition of these ministerial statements. Therefore, I wanted to know if I had missed something. Perhaps there was a retraction or clarification by one of the ministers.

The three ministers announced their personal choice. I did not hear them say they would choose to follow guidance. I did not hear them say this guidance was a possibility.

Law, guidance, and personal choice are three different concepts.[*] At this point, everyone was depressingly familiar with each concept - and occasions where they differ.

Often, a person who asks the public to do a thing, will encourage us by saying that they themself should also do the thing. Conversely: if someone sincerely says they will not do a thing, this appears to suggest they are not in the process of asking you to do the thing. (Or they might apologize afterwards. Or they might say there was an important reason that they needed to test their eyes).

After writing the question, I heard something that partly explained the situation for me. (Your mileage may vary). There were not enough Conservative MP's who would support extending the law on face masks (or social and business restrictions). Relying on Labour support would erode the PM's support from his MP's. If many Conservative MP's were much less in favour of wearing masks than the general population are, for whatever reason, it makes sense that this could affect Conservative ministers.

I don't specifically know what was up with the Housing Minister. Although, one Conservative minister saying something shocking and inconsistent and not explaining themself, does not leave me as surprised as I was when I started writing this question.


[*] There is also a fourth concept where organisations set requirements for staff, customers etc. For example, public transport in London: "Transport secretary backs London mayor’s rule for compulsory masks on TfL". Many shops will request and recommend it. The three ministers did not allow for this possibility either.

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    Edited, under the vague understanding that this will kick it to a review queue.
    – sourcejedi
    Jul 18, 2021 at 20:20
  • 1
    I reopened it based on the added explanation about differences in law, recommendations, etc. Especially, the part about the government recommending and expecting masks to be worn in some situations convinces me that there's still a political angle to it.
    – JJJ
    Jul 18, 2021 at 20:39

2 Answers 2

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Helen Whately, the Minister of State for Social Care, gave a round of interviews on the morning of July 5th.

She was a little tight-lipped when asked on BBC Breakfast (around 7:35) whether she would continue to wear a mask after it was no longer compulsory, saying that she would "follow the guidance" and "take personal responsibility", even on public transport. When further pressed, she said that she didn't want to "preempt the findings of the social-distancing review".

A few interviews, and about an hour later, on Good Morning Britain, she gave the following response, conceding that there would be places where she might find it appropriate to continue to wear a mask.

Susanna Reid: One of the things we do know is that facemasks - the mandatory wearing of facemasks - indoors is going to go on July the 19th. A lot of concern about that, and in fact almost half of our viewers polled said that they actually will carry on wearing facemasks, even when they're advisory. You're Care Minister; huge criticisms of the way that care homes have been treated during the pandemic, but would you set an example by continuing to wear a mask in indoor settings after July the 19th?

Helen Whately: So, care homes and general healthcare settings will have their own set of policies that they'll follow to continue to use infection prevention and control measures and PPE because of the particular vulnerability of the people they look after. But for me personally, outside of those kinds of settings, I expect to be taking personal responsibility, I'm looking forward to wearing a facemask far less - it's not something I enjoy doing - I also know the downsides of it; for example, if you're talking to someone who's hard of hearing or deaf, it's much harder to hear because a facemask often muffles what you're saying and there's no lip-reading. So, you know, it's helpful for people who find it hard to hear-

Reid: So on July the 19th, apart from the places, as you said, care home settings and hospital settings, you'll stop wearing the facemask?

Whately: Well I think there might be, if I'm in an indoor, crowded place, then I might think that that would be- it might still be appropriate to wear a facemask, but I anticipate wearing one much less than, clearly, I do now.

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By implication, the Prime Minister said in the TV briefing that some circumstances would cause him to wear a mask. He used the exact same comparison as the Health Secretary. Although, the Prime Minister did not specifically say a situation where he would wear a mask.

Asked where and when he would continue to wear a mask, the PM said: "It will depend on the circumstances. Clearly there's a big difference between travelling on a crowded Tube train and sitting late at night in a virtually empty carriage on the main railway line.

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