By Emma Roe*, Paul Hurley*, Charlotte Veal** and Sandra Wilks***.
On a day heralded by some, including members of the UK government before it took a more cautious tone, as ‘freedom day’, the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Health Secretary are self-isolating having either tested positive for or been exposed, to Covid-19. Boris Johnson’s announcement a week ago that Monday 19th July would mark the move to Step 4 of the Roadmap – when coronavirus regulations exercising restrictions on our daily lives, and crucially on our bodies, come to an end – has sparked conflicting and inflammatory debate. An object at the forefront of many of these discussions has been the face mask. Part of the shift in the government’s approach “from one of rules and regulations, to one of guidance and good sense” is the end of the legal requirement in England to wear a face covering on public transport, in shops and in other indoor spaces. Understanding this approach and its implications means understanding the social and cultural dimensions of a pandemic, and getting to know the matter (the SARS-CoV-2 virus, emotions, human interactions) and materials (masks, space, and air) through which it is communicated.
While early public responses to the pandemic were preoccupied with hand hygiene, cleaning and social distancing, mandatory face covering within indoor spaces appeared more slowly, partly as a result of empirical uncertainty about its effectiveness outside of clinical settings. A year on, the science of the virus, how it spreads, and the role of face coverings in source control – reducing the exhalation of, and exposure to, potentially dangerous droplets and aerosols – has evolved significantly. SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs invisibly through the air when an infected person breathes out. Consequently, “an individual could potentially be infected when they inhale aerosols produced when an infected person exhales, speaks, shouts, sings, sneezes, or coughs”. And while many of us may perceive the mask as a prophylactic barrier, shielding us from the virus and / or other people’s breath, its primary function is in fact the opposite – to protect those around us from our own exhalations.
The Prime Minister’s call for a return to individual responsibility, whilst at the same time foregrounding our need to “reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from Covid” thus heralds a denial of the socio-ecological situation that plays out when a person contracts Covid. With the hope that pressures on the NHS can now be managed, ‘post-pandemic’ Great Britain is moving back to a neoliberal agenda that privileges the rights of the individual over responsibility to others. The presentation of the apparent choice, for some, in deciding to wear a face covering (to protect others from your exhalations) or not, masks those for whom sharing public spaces means increased personal risk – including for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable or not double vaccinated.
The decision to lift mandatory mask-wearing in indoor public spaces, in spite of medo-scientific advice running counter, is perhaps testament to the political and divisive nature of the mask, particularly within Western democratic societies. Public health benefits have often been positioned in direct opposition to, or as needing to negotiate, the cultural and social values attached to the mask, and the everyday lived experiences of being masked. Politically, the mask has gained agency, perceived by some as a physical marker of submission to the State and as a violation of individual liberty. Although previously disregarded in the UK outside of clinical settings, the mask has been routinely employed throughout South East Asia not only in the context of public health (SARS, MERS) but also as a response to high levels of vehicle emissions and widespread air pollution. At least in part because of this, masks have historically been racialised; a means of othering and an object of the Other. Although some of us already employ various face coverings for clinical, occupational or religious reasons, this was the first time that Western populations were asked to adopt them more widely.
The governance of wearing a face mask in spaces where people are with those outside their household is changing. There is currently a highly-politicised debate about the extent to which masks should be mandated through law and in what places, whether it should be left to the responsibility and decisions of corporate businesses – shops, bus companies or employers –, or be left entirely to individual choice. The action of local government actors to use the powers they have to enforce mask-wearing may run counter to this in some spaces, such as public transport. This creates a complex set of reasoning about when and whether one wears a mask and how one reads others’ mask-wearing or not.
We have become interested in the face mask and the role it plays in building confidence in public bus transport use both during and after the pandemic, as part of a UKRI study of virus-bus passenger relations in the context of COVID-19. Our expanded team includes cultural geographers, microbiologists, an artist and film maker. We are seeking to understand how humans and viruses interact and behave on the bus, what infection prevention practices people are employing to be and feel safe, and what role visualisation can play in engaging with an agent (SARS-CoV-2) that most of us can’t see or know scientifically. Between February 2021 and July 2021 we have carried out 30 hours of ethnography, interviewed 22 bus passengers, 7 bus drivers and 2 cleaners. From our interviews with bus drivers and bus passengers there has been a level of confidence in the safety of using public transport because ‘if you wear your mask, you are safe’. The new confusion about whether or not one needs to wear a mask, as well as the predicted increase in how busy such spaces will become, directly shapes how people feel about taking the bus.
Cultural dimensions of face covering
We have found it important to acknowledge that any debates surrounding public health advice to wear a mask must at the same time sit alongside a cultural legacy of experiences of being masked and encountering the masked. These experiences are meaningfully differentiated across the population and may in part explain the variation in responses and levels of political tension on the issue. For some people, such as those with emphysema or asthma, the mask can be a claustrophobic object that restricts the ability to breathe. For others, the mask is a symbolic gag to freedom of speech and expression, or an impediment to eating and drinking when and where they want. There are some, such as those who choose to wear the face-veil in public, for whom the widening participation in mask-wearing with only eyes being visible has led to the discovery of new levels of acceptance and normality in a practice they personally valued. The majority of bus passengers that we interviewed, men and women with Somali heritage living in England, conveyed the importance of mask-wearing and social distancing to protect themselves from infection. As such, they emphasised its material and imaginative ability to provide security when mixing with people outside of their household bubble, during the gradual easing of restrictions.
Responsibility and protection
Significantly, we found that the public health advice that mask-wearing helps to keep others safe from your exhalations, as opposed to protecting you from others’ exhalations, rarely featured in our interviewees as a reason for wearing a mask. Overall, the Government’s move has created a world where the option to mask-wear is a new responsibility for individuals to become accustomed to and to judge across different public, private, and commercial spaces. The trickiness of this responsibility is a level of awareness that one wears a mask in order to protect others, but also with the hope that a shared visibility of mask-wearing drives community compliance that in turn will protect oneself.
This pandemic has pushed forward greater urgency in coming to terms with the truth that public health is a collective venture, and yet the move to take away the legal mandate to wear a mask in an indoor space runs counter to that truth. Instead we fear that neoliberal attempts to marketise anxieties about the safety of indoor spaces, with only some corporate players requiring mask-wearing, may exacerbate health inequalities. As researchers and creative producers, we are developing knowledge both for corporate players (via policy reports) and individuals (via playful animated films) to empower decision-making that engages with these issues in more responsible and equitable ways.
* Geography and Environmental Science, University of Southampton
** School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University
*** Biological Sciences, University of Southampton
 Lovett, S. 2021. ‘Downing Street insiders urged to avoid misleading term ‘freedom day’’, The Independent, 21 June 2021 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/covid-freedom-day-restrictions-latest-uk-b1869951.html
 PM statement at coronavirus press conference, 12 July 2021
 Oral statement to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on step 4 of the roadmap and the vaccine roll-out, 5th July 2021 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/update-on-the-pandemic-and-the-roadmap-to-freedom
 The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings on Public Transport) (England) Regulations 2020, No. 592
 The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings on Public Transport) (England) Regulations 2020, No. 592, No. 791 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/791/contents