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Sensemaker audio

A masked U-turn

A masked U-turn

At first Boris Johnson said that after the great unlocking, masks would no longer be mandatory. Just days later, he changed his mind. Why?


Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, the government’s U-turn on face coverings…

“I do think we need to be, we need to be stricter, in insisting that people wear face coverings in confined places where they are meeting people that they don’t normally meet.”

Boris Johnson, The People’s PMQs, July 2020

That was Boris Johnson one year ago in July 2020, when he asked the public to wear face coverings on public transport, in shops and restaurants, or face a fine. 

It was a decision he’d taken four months to make.

“The balance of scientific opinion seems to have shifted in favour of… more in favour of them than it was and we’re very keen to follow that.

Boris Johnson, The People’s PMQs, July 2020

Because face coverings and the benefits they brought in lowering transmission of the coronavirus were contested from the off.  

In the US, mask wearing quickly became a culture war. 

[Clips: fights over face masks]

It’s become an all too familiar scene across the country, people getting physical over wearing masks inside stores…

ABC7 News

For such a simple object, a piece of cloth, face coverings soon became a symbol of what people stood for.

In England, whatever they thought, it looked as if people wouldn’t have to stand for them much longer. Step 4 of lockdown-easing on the 19th of July was trailed as the end of mask-wearing. Full stop.

Until this week, when Boris Johnson started to pedal backwards.

“And I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough…”

Boris Johnson speaking at a press conference, July 2021

The message was clear…

“… this pandemic is not over, this disease, coronavirus, continues to carry risks for you and your family. We cannot simply reverse instantly on Monday 19th July to life as it was before Covid…”

Boris Johnson speaking at a press conference, July 2021

The government will “expect and recommend” that people wear a face covering in crowded places even after the lockdown is lifted. It won’t be the law – but it will be a sort of personal duty.

So the question is: what prompted Boris Johnson to make a U-turn? 


“When a new disease emerges, one of the first things that people want to know is who’s at risk, whether your newborn baby or asthmatic child, or your elderly grandmother…”

Hannah Devlin, Science correspondent, The Guardian

It quickly became clear at the start of the pandemic that elderly people and those who are clinically vulnerable were most at risk from coronavirus. 

And so for a lot of us, the first phase of the pandemic was spent worrying about them. But now most people in those groups are double jabbed, the worry has shifted. 

“The delta variant could cause a significant increase in infection if you let it in.”

Boris Johnson speaking to Channel 4 News at the G7 Conference

The delta variant changed the game…

“The United Kingdom’s new health secretary claims the nation could be facing 100,000 new Covid cases per day…”

Sky News Australia

The predicted number of cases went through the roof and that’s led to two new concerns. First, if enough people get Covid then even if a low percentage of them end up in hospital it could still be enough to overwhelm the NHS. 

And second, because of the way the Delta variant is rampaging through children and young adults, how many of them are going to get Long Covid?


“Now the head of NHS England says that hundreds of thousands of people could be suffering the effects of what is known as Long Covid…”

BBC News

We still don’t know what the long term effects of Long Covid will be but parents are keen for their children to avoid it. 

Politically, Boris Johnson wants to tell people they don’t have to wear a mask. A lot of his MPs are pushing for what they tend to call “freedom day” to include an end to masks. But if the prime minister is doing that when his health secretary is saying we could hit 100,000 cases per day in the summer, well, it could look pretty irresponsible.

So, not for the first time in the pandemic, we’ve ended up with a message which is a bit confusing.

“I think this, ohh we’ll leave it up to individuals, people can take personal responsibility, that’s a recipe for confusion, I’m afraid it’s probably a recipe for more confrontations…”

Kate Green, Labour Shadow Education Secretary, speaking to Sky News

The English government’s guidance – which not the same in the rest of the UK, by the way – will be to wear a face covering on busy trains and buses and crowded places after July 19th but it won’t be mandatory

And if you want an example of how this could quickly turn political again, here’s a good one. A leaked memo suggests that in the House of Commons, after lockdown is lifted, masks will be optional for MPs but compulsory for members of staff – security people, cleaners, hospitality staff. People like that.

Boris Johnson is a libertarian at heart. The last thing he wants is another lockdown. And he’s promised us there’s no going back. The easing of lockdown is irreversible he said. 

So although he’s gone into reverse a little bit this week on the question of masks, the really big test for him is still ahead. 

The next couple of months are going to be a really uncertain time. 

The difference between scientists’ lowest estimates of the number of people who could end up in hospital, and their highest estimates is the difference between the NHS coping or being overwhelmed. 

Can Boris Johnson afford – politically – to decide that lockdown can be reversed after all if things get bad?

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.