Mixed messages: the changing government narrative on face masks | Coronavirus

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The tone of ministers about the future of face masks has noticeably shifted in the past week, at least in part as a result of public concerns about the extent to which coronavirus restrictions will be eased next Monday.

Rishi Sunak

At the end of June, the chancellor said he expected to stop wearing a face covering “as soon as possible” after it was no longer legally required, and added it was his “strong expectation” that society could “get back to normal” after 19 July.

Robert Jenrick

The housing, communities and local government secretary, said on 5 July: “I don’t particularly want to wear a mask, I don’t think a lot of people enjoy doing it. These will be matters of personal choice. Some members of society will want to do so for perfectly legitimate reasons. But it will be a different period where we as private citizens makes these judgments, rather than the government telling you what to do.”

Helen Whately

On the same day, the care minister said she was “looking forward to not having to wear a face mask so much as I have been” and highlighted that they have downsides for people who relied on lip-reading.

Nadhim Zahawi

When internal Whitehall polling showed people thought the government was easing restrictions too quickly, the messaging changed significantly. Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, said on Sunday that people should “remain cautious and careful” and people would be “expected” to wear masks in crowded enclosed spaces.

Sajid Javid

The new health minister then said in a Commons statement on Monday that everyone “should try to meet people outside, where that’s possible” and that “it is expected and recommended” people should wear face coverings in places like public transport – unless they are exempt.

Boris Johnson

In a Downing Street press conference later that afternoon, the prime minister stressed it was vital to “proceed with caution” and repeated that “we expect and recommend that people wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces where you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet”. “I cannot say this powerfully enough: this pandemic is not over,” he stressed, saying “we cannot simply revert instantly from Monday 19 July to life as it was before Covid”.

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