The Omicron variant has cast a murky cloud over the next stage of the pandemic.
For now, we’ve been temporarily transported back to a version of the uncertain days of last year. We’re tentatively checking the news as the confirmed number of cases slowly
ticks up, while scientists try to work out how bad the variant is or isn’t, and the NHS is preparing itself for yet another mammoth mission as it aims to offer up to 25 million booster jabs by the end of January.
Last week the BBC reported on leaked minutes from a Sage meeting in which government advisers said the impact of the Omicron variant on the UK is “highly uncertain” but may require a “very stringent response” – with vaccine efficacy against the strain not yet known.
The news has caused a ripple effect. Some companies have cancelled their Christmas parties, parents have been told their kids’ nativities will be performed virtually for the second year in a row, and work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey has warned the public not to snog people they don’t know under the mistletoe.
And finally, more than four months on from so-called freedom day, mandatory masks are back – with new rules on face coverings in shops and on public transport for at least the next three weeks.
Not that you’d know it. Last Tuesday, on the first day of the new rules, I popped out to my local Aldi and was horrified to see a good 40 per cent of shoppers with their mouths and noses defiantly exposed.
The following morning commuters took to social media to air their frustration at fellow passengers who had stepped onto crowded buses and tubes without a mask.
And so the culture wars were reignited. More than a year since mandatory masks were introduced in July 2020, the country has become divided once more.
The mask – a simple piece of material that has been found to be the single most effective public health measure at tackling Covid – has become a symbol of state-sanctioned control and oppression to freedom-obsessed libertarians.
Last week a handful of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs continued to go maskless in the Commons despite tougher measures being introduced for the public, while only a couple of weeks ago the prime minister was forced to apologise after brazenly walking around a hospital without a face covering.
Many of our elected leaders have displayed a problematic relationship with masks through the pandemic. It might explain why we’re so rubbish at wearing them. While the rest of the UK and Europe have largely embraced mask-wearing, in England we were slow to start wearing them in the first place and quick to get rid of them. And we’ve continued to battle with higher cases ever since.
But here’s the thing: it’s just a mask. It’s not a political statement or symbol. It doesn’t mean you have given up all your civic freedom. You’re not a sheep, you’re not part of an experiment. It’s just a piece of material on your face. It keeps other people safe. So wear one.
Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy
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