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Mixed messages mean a face mask muddle when law is lifted in England

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The muddle of rules and recommendations leaves the question open of what people will actually do. Will mask-wearing continue as caution prevails, or will people decide that dropping the law means there’s no longer a need to do so?

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Prof David Halpern, the head of the Behavioural Insights Team, said people had formed new habits in the pandemic, mask-wearing being one of them. If that habit holds, then pressure from the new social norm might prevent people immediately abandoning face coverings. “If you go into an environment where most people are wearing masks, if you’re not, they are going to frown,” he said.

No one knows, however, what the majority will do. Prof Ivo Vlaev, a behavioural scientist at the University of Warwick, points out that wearing masks in the UK soared when it became mandatory. “The single biggest influence on face mask wearing appears to be the law,” he said.

So what will happen when the law is lifted? “Changes will happen over different timescales for different people,” he said. “Some will stop wearing masks immediately, others will be driven by habit and continue wearing masks for a while, and yet others will be driven by fear of the virus and hence continue wearing masks maybe forever.”

Previous research has shown that a willingness to follow mask rules rises with age. If the trend continues in England after 19 July, the young people who will bear the brunt of the coming wave because they are last to be vaccinated may be those least likely to wear masks. Given that masks are to protect others more than the wearer, that could become a problem.

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Because many people consider themselves at low risk of Covid, “protect yourself messages” will have a limited impact on encouraging the ongoing use of masks, Vlaev said. “To motivate us, the government need to stress how desired behaviours protect the most vulnerable, including those we love,” he said. That means powerful pictures and the real voices of those we need to protect.

Prof Paul Dolan, a behavioural scientist at the London School of Economics, hosts the Duck-Rabbit podcast, which explores issues that polarise opinions. He stresses that no one knows what will happen with mask-wearing when England opens up, but as society sorts into the dos and do nots, the two tribes may come into conflict. “What’s interesting now is things are much more ambivalent. It’s freedom day, but not quite. Looking to the policymakers as a cue or a signal for what we ought to think, and how we ought to react, it’s all very confused,” he said.

Scrapping the law on mask-wearing is itself a powerful message, said Prof John Drury, a social psychologist at the University of Sussex. Speaking in a personal capacity, Drury, who participates in the Spi-B behavioural science subgroup that feeds into Sage, said: “In a context where face-coverings have been mandated for a year, to drop that mandate sends a very strong signal. It signals that the situation with the pandemic is now much less serious.”

The Spi-B group of advisers was commissioned to report earlier this year on what should be done to embed Covid-safe behaviours into everyday life once legal restrictions were lifted.

The advice, written in April, sets out the need for comprehensive communication and education campaigns to ensure everyone understands Covid risks in different settings and how to reduce them.

“If masks are no longer to be mandated, there needs to be something else in the place of the mandate given that the vaccination programme is not going to be sufficient to curb the soaring rate of infections,” Drury said. “Where is that? Basically the government are saying use your personal judgment but not equipping people to do so.”