The UK finally makes wearing masks inside shops compulsory
On July 14th the UK government finally announced that the wearing of masks in shops was to be made mandatory in England. Although this decision makes eminent sense in terms of the continuing efforts to control the spread of the Covid-19 crisis, what made less sense was that this regulation was to be implemented only 10 days after the announcement.
The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan was one of the people baffled by the two-week window but ministers justified this by saying it was in order to give businesses ‘time to prepare’ for the situation. Opinion in England is split on making the wearing of masks in public mandatory. Deniers insist there is ‘no conclusive evidence’ that the wearing of masks is effective in controlling the spread of infection and that everything needs to ‘go back to normal.’ However, a large number of people declare that they would definitely not be going back into public places unless mask wearing was made compulsory and one suspects that it was this factor that has driven the government’s decision on masks in shops.
Failure to abide by this new rule could result in offenders facing up to 100 pound fines, shopkeepers would be able to refuse entry to anybody refusing to wear a face covering and to call the police if needed. But, as the fines would have to be enforced by the police, the Police Federation of England and Wales has criticised the move saying this will just put further pressure on an already understaffed and overextended police force. Labour has accused the Tory government of continuing to put out mixed messages on the whole subject of masks and social responsibility because so far they have tended to avoid clear direction by simply saying that the public could be trusted to ‘behave sensibly.’
Well guess what? Common sense is exactly what seemed to be lacking in the way many people have behaved: after some public places opened up when the ‘stay local’ lockdown rule was relaxed in England people thronged to public holiday spots and completely failed to maintain social distancing as the infamous photos from many beaches over the May Bank Holiday illustrate. You would think that with daily media updates on the tens of thousands of deaths all over the world, the continuing media coverage of what this virus is and how it works and the many heartrending accounts of those who have lost loved ones to Covid-19, people would behave differently — but apparently not.
Even now, it seems that the new rule regarding mask wearing in shops is driven less by public health concerns and more by attempts to get people shopping again. Pubs and restaurants were allowed to reopen at the beginning of the month and recently the chancellor announced various incentives to get people eating out again. But this strategy of kickstarting the hospitality sector is fraught with danger: a few days after the pubs were allowed to open up, several had to close down again because customers who had been there tested positive for the virus.
The government is obviously anxious to get businesses functioning and the wheels of the economy turning again but it is not just the government that is in a rush to get things back to what is referred to as ‘normal.’ People are anxious to go back to their old life of crazy consumerism, their old habits of narcissistic and hedonistic spending.
But what we need to be aware of is that if we have any sense then there can be no such thing as going back to what we used to call ‘normal life’. We need to embrace a new normal: life has changed and it’s not going to be the same as it was before this epidemic.
Instead of trying to go back to life as it was before lockdown we need to try to create new models of living, work and production. We need to enhance technology and communications, consolidate on the environmental benefits that have resulted from lockdown and concentrate on the social inequalities that have widened during this period. Rather than making policies that are pinned to economic theory, we need to come up with new policies in which social harmony and integration are key priorities and these are what drive economic decisions. We need to focus on local economies, people should be encouraged to work locally and food production and supply should be local too. But more than anything, we need to move away from conspicuous spending and wasteful practices. Our new normal should be driven not just by spending and consumerism but by social and environmental responsibility.