Not wearing a mask is a “moral” choice in solidarity with children and disabled people, a government scientist has insisted amid warnings of a new culture war erupting over face coverings.
On Tuesday, Robert Dingwall, a sociology professor, spoke out after other politicians and senior scientists pledged to wear face masks in some situations when they become voluntary across England from July 19.
Boris Johnson announced this week that rules mandating face coverings on public transport and in shops would end at step four of his roadmap out of lockdown.
The Prime Minister said Britons would still be encouraged to wear a mask in “enclosed and crowded places”, however, and confirmed he would continue to wear a mask in certain scenarios out of politeness.
He stressed that in situations such as sitting alone in a train carriage, “people should be entitled to exercise some discretion”.
Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, said he would cover his mouth and nose when in crowded spaces, when asked to by a competent authority, or if he felt the absence of a mask made another person uncomfortable as a “point of common courtesy”.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, told a Number 10 press conference: “I’m exactly the same in terms of mask-wearing.”
It has led to concerns that mask-wearing is set to become a new dividing line, with both champions and opponents of face coverings claiming the moral high ground.
Prof Dingwall insisted that the benefits of masks “have always been uncertain because the quality of the evidence in both directions is so weak”.
The academic, who sits on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said he would stop wearing a face covering on July 19.
He said he would undertake the move in “solidarity” with various groups including “people with communication difficulties, whether auditory and unable to lip-read” and “all the small children whose education has been disrupted by the lack of visual clues, especially in language development”.
Prof Dingwall said he accepted others may take a different view, but told Sky News: “I will not allow them to suggest that I am less moral or caring and I will expect them to respect my choices as I respect theirs.”
His intervention came as Ian Noon, the head of policy at the National Deaf Children’s Society, said face coverings had been “a huge challenge for many deaf people across the country”.
Almost all deaf people “rely on lip reading in some way”, which means face coverings “lead to an exhausting daily battle just to understand what others were saying”, he said.
Mr Noon added: “Until face coverings are a thing of the past, we’d urge everyone speaking to a deaf person to be patient, think about different ways to communicate and show good deaf awareness.”
Masks have also proven controversial among quarters of the Conservative party. Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tories, highlighted “how easily we have forgotten that at the beginning of this crisis, the scientific advice was that the public shouldn’t wear masks”.
He told The Telegraph: “It would be absurd if now masks became the great dividing line, when there is plainly so much scientific uncertainty over them.”
However, Dr Laurence Aitchison, from the department of computer science at the University of Bristol, said: “Our research has shown mask-wearing reduces the spread of Covid-19 by around 25 per cent if everyone wears them.
“At a time when mask-wearing is decreasing and mask mandates are being lifted, the findings confirm that masks do indeed have a strong impact on lowering transmission of the virus and remain an important measure in our response against it.
“As people are now used to wearing them, it’s a simple thing everyone can do to continue managing risk while also resuming normal activities.”
Scientific evidence suggests that face coverings worn over the nose and mouth reduce the spread of coronavirus droplets from coughs, sneezes and speaking.