‘AMID mounting confusion over face masks inside takeaways, No 10 confirms once-and-for-all that masks are compulsory in the optional sense, unless you’re eating in, whereby they become optionally compulsory.’ (Have I Got News For You, on Twitter)

With Covid rule confusion apparently now government policy, the ‘changing science’ on face masks has been doing somersaults as ministers variously suggest mask-wearing is a matter of courtesy and good manners, then fail to wear one in a sandwich shop (Gove); suggest they should be ‘made mandatory, perhaps’ (Buckland); and finally decide to make them compulsory in shops … in ten days’ time (Johnson). Mr Sunak too, in a photo-op to advertise his new meal deals, abstained from mask and gloves as he served food and chatted over the plates to Wagamama customers.

Masks became compulsory in England for staff, visitors and outpatients in hospitals, and on public transport, on 15 June. Individuals also began making personal decisions to wear them, and when and where – mostly indoors, but I have seen a couple of masked runners. Why now the ten-day delay for wearing in shops? – to enable us all ‘to prepare’ is the official line, for shopkeepers to consider how to manage refusers, for some perhaps to save up (no copying of the free provision of other countries), and perhaps to give one of Dom’s pals time to become a producer or supplier of face coverings.

There have been suggestions that certain world leaders are reluctant to don the mask for fear of being seen as ‘effeminate, cowardly, left wing’. Given Johnson’s history in relation to comments about face coverings, he may want to avoid the tables being turned. In the US, Trump refuses to make mask wearing mandatory (far too damaging in election year?) but did start wearing one himself earlier this month. And as for Bolsonaro … Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon has been, unfussily, sporting a tartan one, contributing to Shelter Scotland by buying it.

I’ve hardly worn one myself as I’ve barely been into another building, and do believe transmission is greatly reduced in the open air. Twice, in small shops, I have asked if they’d prefer it; the man in the bike shop scoffed. From 24 July there will be no choice. I’ve been making them for a while now and have a small cottage industry happening in my attic, using up leftovers from previous projects. First up, two for climate protest photographs, followed by three for Glasgow flatmates, one for a birthday, two to thank for a bike loan, two as a gift at a distanced garden meet … With some help from YouTube, a few modifications, and attention to the WHO’s ‘three layer’ recommendation, I can now produce a serviceable mask, sometimes with a bit of designer flair!

Do they give us a false sense of security? Might we imagine ourselves to be fully protected, and perhaps become a little more lax with the hand washing and social distancing? We have had no guidance about how to wear them (under the chin seems a favourite), how long for, or how to dispose or reuse. What does seem indisputable is that wearing a mask may protect someone else. It seems a good practical way to encourage us all into that more empathic caring future many people would like.

Further reading

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/12/ministers-have-struggled-to-wear-a-mask-do-they-think-it-makes-them-look-weak

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/17/face-mask-fashion-politicians-step-out-in-statement-masks

Penny Merrett, Sheffield

SO here in France a bus driver dies after being attacked by people who objected to being ordered off the bus for not wearing face masks, something that is compulsory on public transport. President Macron is deeply unpopular as 66% of voters think he is doing a poor job of dealing with the pandemic. As in the UK, there are many questions about the timing of lockdown (put in place too late), about the lack of protective equipment, and about the poor track record of the test and trace system that has been put in place. (The Covid-19 app was downloaded by just 2 million people, a quarter of whom then deleted it. Just 14 users of the app have been informed they are at risk.)

In our sheltered and quiet corner of France there have not been too many cases of Covid-19. In a sense, we were locked down unnecessarily as the infection rate was high elsewhere but not here (unlike the UK where the infection was all over the country). What protected us, of course, was the restriction upon travel – the infected people were kept in their place, and we stayed away from them – and staying in our houses did not really affect the infection rate here. Has this bred an attitude of complacency here? And what difference is the opening up of travel around France, around the continent, with many people coming down here for their holidays, going to make?

We decided, early on, that reopening the bed and breakfast was not going to happen for us. The thought of people coming and going, from such different places and not just from our locality, was too worrying. We found it hard to get good information and consistent guidance about how to maintain hygiene standards in this setting – what we did learn seemed to involve greater costs and booking firms seemed to be asking us to lower our prices in order to gain customers. In what is an already low margin business, the financial costs and the health costs both seemed to be too high for us. I think we are now finished with being B&B owners.

When all our summer bookings disappeared in March and April, we moved to renting out the house as a gite, as a whole house, and we have picked up five weeks of rental over the high season, all of them French families seeking a holiday venue. Our original intention was to have a number of days between each rental, so we could have natural sterilisation of the house, but we have only been able to achieve that once, given that people like to rent from Saturday to Saturday. So we will have three changeover Saturdays when, in six hours, we will try to make the house safe for the incoming visitors – airing the house, changing the bedding, cleaning, running the dishwasher, sterilising light switches and door handles, changing over the games and CDs so that only half are available to each group … anything that we can think of that will make a difference.

Meanwhile, in most shops most people are now wearing face coverings (this will be compulsory from next week) but in the bar, as I walk down the main street, I can see people kissing in welcome, just as they always did. What exactly is the new normal?

Jonathan Merrett, Sallèles d’Aude

A UNIVERSAL message from world leaders suggests that our fate in relation to Covid-19 is largely up to us. We know as much as there is to know and responsible individual and collective behaviour, or otherwise, will determine events until there is a medical breakthrough and increasing herd immunity. That sounds fair enough. For the last few months I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m elderly and vulnerable: so stay at home. It suits me.

Except that I can’t. Take motor vehicle licences, for example. I had two expiring on 31 May and tried to renew them just before lockdown to be told it was too early. Then everything shut down and we were informed an extension had been granted until August.

In the old days, when the South African state was still functional, every year a renewal notice appeared in the post. You filled in the blank boxes, enclosed a cheque, and posted the notice back. Before long, a new licence disc appeared in your post box. That all sounds today like life on another planet. There is no reliable postal service and renewal notices went out of favour long ago. Fortunately, I had a couple of forms left over from last year. Then followed half a dozen attempts to renew at assorted venues. Even on a Sunday morning it was clear that an apparently vulnerable old person like me would have to queue for several hours, marshalled by the ubiquitous security guards, to reach a counter.

The alternative was to arrive before the winter dawn shortly after 6 am to be sure of a place at the head of a queue for 8 am opening; or, more precisely, to discover whether or not the licensing system was operational that day. By this time the attraction of getting someone else to take on the job for a fee had become overwhelming and fortunately we knew someone who earns a part living in this way. But he needed certified copies of my dompas (identity document) and proof of residence. The latter was complicated by the fact that our municipality no longer mails monthly accounts, so originals cannot be certified. The bank came to the rescue.

In recent years life has become a great deal more complicated: queues have replaced the postal service and their downside, possibly lethal, has been rudely revealed by the epidemic. The State demands our money and compliance. But motor vehicle licence discs can be purchased only in person and with cash. The authorities have had years to automate the system of payment connected to the national vehicle registry database; and have failed to do so while churning out deranged fantasies about a Fourth Industrial Revolution. The plight of those renewing driver’s licences is even worse.

To keep a trust functional I have to drive across town every month to sign cheques. That’s due to legal and banking regulations rather than the government … and another story altogether.

Yes, I would love to change my behaviour and stay at home shielded from malign viruses. But I can’t and have no confidence whatsoever that a brave new Covid-19 world will allow me to in spite of all the chatter of futurologists. A world full of talk and little action even when there are obvious solutions.

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg