Unmasked – what our views on face masks reveal

Is cover up for better or worse?

It is unsurprising that attitudes towards the wearing of masks vary so dramatically when scientists worldwide have failed to reach a consensus on whether or not they help or hinder in the battle against the spread of coronavirus. Since the beginning of the pandemic,
the World Health Authority has gone from advising against masks to being in favour of them when physical distancing is difficult, such as when using public transport.

Concerns remain that masks may give a false sense of security, leading people to neglect other safety strategies, like hand washing and social distancing. Governments around the world have adopted differing strategies, and in the UK, after its own policy reversal, the government ruled that masks must be worn in shops and most other indoor venues and on public transport. The ruling is legally enforceable, with fines a possibility for those ignoring it.

But this does not seem to have stopped many from going without a mask, or adopting alternative mask-free tactics. How often do we see shoppers in supermarkets or other large stores wearing a mask but with their nose uncovered, or even with the mask slung across the chin so that both mouth and nose remain uncovered?

Concerns remain that masks may give a false sense of security, leading people to neglect other safety strategies, like hand washing and social distancing

As the crisis rolls on, with no early end in sight, many are saying that if, as the government claims, it wants a quick return to normality, the first step towards this would be to abandon masks. Talk Radio presenter, Mark Dolan, theatrically cut one up live on air, describing it to listeners and those watching via live stream, as ‘wretched,’ ‘God-awful,’ ‘damned,’ ‘uncomfortable,’ ‘scientifically-empty’ and ‘useless.’

Others point to the potential environmental disaster and threat to marine wildlife that is looming, with 129 billion disposable masks being discarded across the planet each month. Many of those end up in the sea and will take up to 450 years to decompose. And then of course, there are the coronavirus deniers.

Protesting in large groups, they are unlikely to be seen wearing face coverings anywhere, or at any time soon, and are equally unlikely to be in the market for one of the new, highly fashionable designer masks now available from an increasing number of high street stores and online retailers.

What our surveys show

More women than men believe that wearing masks in shops should, as it is, be compulsory, with 65% being in favour, compared to 53% of men. But there are interesting and fluctuating generational differences of opinion on the subject, too. Amongst the youngest of the groups surveyed, the Millennials (those born between 1980-2000), the level of support for compulsory mask wearing in shops was at its lowest, at just 53%, whilst in the next age grouping, Generation X (1965-1979) the support level rose to its highest, at nearly 70%. Moving up again age-wise to the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) support plunged, this time to 58%, and finally, with the oldest grouping, the Traditionals (1925-1945), support rose once more to 65%.


Our attitude to government policy around mask wearing was also extremely revealing, even to the extent of giving an indication on which way we voted in the 2016 Brexit referendum. When asked on whether or not government advice on mask wearing had been clear so far, more than twice as many Leave voters (39%) than Remain voters (just 18%) thought that it had.

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