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Brits are starting to wear face masks—but it hasn’t come easily

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Ask a Brit what they fear about wearing a face mask in public, and feeling “silly”, “self conscious” and “uncomfortable” will feature highly.

The highly-developed British sense of embarrassment—alongside months of mixed-messages from the U.K. government and scientists—have made Britons much less likely to wear face masks in public compared to other countries, including the U.S. But as the government faces pressure to make masks mandatory in more settings, it’s also facing the challenge of actually getting Britons to wear them in the first place.

By the end of last week, only 31{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00} of Brits were wearing face coverings in public, according to polling by YouGov, the polling company, despite requirements that masks be worn on public transit in England, and non-mandatory advice from the government that they be worn in enclosed spaces, like shops. (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own policies.)

Mask adoption has actually grow sharply over the last month, according to YouGov, but levels are still notably lower than most other countries, with the exception of Australia (21{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00}), and the Nordic countries, where mask wearing was reported by 5{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00} of respondents, at most.

It was also notably lower than the U.S., where around 71{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00} of respondents said they were wearing them in a poll last week, according to YouGov. A study by YouGov earlier in June noted that many of the Britons who did not wear masks in the U.K. chose not to because they perceived wearing one would be uncomfortable and embarrassing.

Now, the government is facing pressure to go further. Both London mayor Sadiq Khan and the British Medical Association are now asking the government to make masks mandatory in shops and other enclosed indoor spaces.

But the reluctance to wear a mask appears to spring from the British government’s own ambivalence on the subject. In the early days of the lockdown, Boris Johnson actively discouraged mask wearing, saying it risked taking sorely needed medical masks away from healthcare workers.

Masks’ actual effectiveness is still in question—the U.K. government’s current advice warns that “evidence suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect you,” but added that they may protect others from you if you haven’t yet shown symptoms. Boris Johnson, even before contracting COVID-19, never appeared wearing a face mask.

Those mixed messages aren’t unique to the U.K. The WHO itself has given mixed messages on whether masks should be worn. In the U.S., public appeals to mask up from the CDC have also often been muddied, including from the surgeon general, who cast wearing masks as an act of patriotism, after earlier tweeting that wearing them is ineffective.

There is still a robust scientific divide on whether masks are effective, and what kinds, where, and how, they should be worn—if at all. Many experts point to a lack of conclusive research on the subject, while some say that anecdotal evidence, including better-controlled outbreaks in East Asian countries where mask wearing is widespread, show the benefits outweigh any risks—largely that masks will create a sense of complacency.

After the U.K. announced masks would become mandatory on public transport in England from mid-June, even the country’s epidemiologists proved to be deeply divided.

“While no ad-hoc studies with a correct design have been carried out, it is now commonly accepted that face coverings provide very little protection, if any,” wrote Antonio Lazzarino, an epidemiologist at the department of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL. He added that a potential side effect of wearing masks would be the risk of allowing for other measures to be eased.

“Face coverings aren’t 100{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00} effective, but they’re not zero percent effective either,” said Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care health services at the University of Oxford, who wrote that she has pushed for a clear government campaign to promote face masks as effective.

A study by researchers at Cambridge University and Greenwich University found that “100{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00}” adoption of face masks, alongside lockdowns and other measures, can successfully flatten infection rates. But emerging studies on the subject in the U.K., many emerging pre-publication, have also received mixed reviews.

But despite the mixed scientific evidence, most countries appear to be taking a more direct approach to face coverings than the U.K.: if in doubt, wear a mask.

They’re even, albeit grudgingly, gaining some consideration from Sweden—currently boasting the continent’s most relaxed COVID-19 policy, instituted by Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist. Though Tegnell has repeatedly said masks are ineffective, last week he said that face masks could “possibly” be useful in situations like while riding public transport.

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