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Covid-19: Masks - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:02 pm on 11th June 2020.

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Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour 4:02 pm, 11th June 2020

My Lords, 14 weeks ago, I raised in the House the issue of masks. The Government’s response was to reject my case. I have repeatedly raised the issue. Meanwhile, nearly 60 countries worldwide have adopted mandatory mask wearing. During that period, we have registered the second-highest incidence worldwide of death and new cases. Indeed, today there are more cases in the UK, with a population of 67 million, than in the whole of Europe, with a population of 460 million. We are struggling in the UK against an avalanche of reported new cases—between 4,000 and 7,000 a day—and we have moved into second place worldwide for deaths per 1,000 of the population.

I am not arguing that our shocking record is down to PPE shortages, though I do argue that mask policy has been a major contributory factor. The Government’s whole approach to this pandemic has been riddled with miscalculation, misjudgment and mistake. Their errors in the case of the elderly, on PPE, on testing and in the dispersal of the elderly from hospitals to care homes—all unparalleled in medical history—have undoubtedly cost thousands of lives. Those responsible will never be forgiven—never.

Obsession with the herd, the abandonment of test and trace, reliance on Public Health England’s advice on testing and an early failure to take the big decisions have all contributed to this disaster. The sight last week, televised worldwide, of MPs lined up over a kilometre to vote in our Parliament has made us an international laughing stock. That is the background to this affair: the worst example of government incompetence in my political lifetime.

Last week, the policy on masks was finally rescinded. It would be churlish of me, despite what I have said, not to welcome this decision, limited as it is. I understand that, for many in government, the change would have been professionally embarrassing. One would hope that comments in the Lancet of 27 May, where it is stated that there is increasing evidence of aerosol spread of Covid-19, meaning that people further than two metres away are all at risk, help to strengthen their resolve. If that is so, why are the Government still so wedded to hesitant change at a time when the country is desperate for real action and resolve? The truth is that they should never have allowed procurement and supply to compromise their professional judgment. The policy change does not go far enough.

In setting out my case, I thank Mr Philip Collett of Banbury, who has been of invaluable help in carrying out my research. First, on the evidence of transmissibility in the absence of masks, there have been innumerable case reports. In the particularly interesting Hunan bus case in China in January, more than half the people infected were more than two metres away and three were infected at 4.5 metres. People wearing masks were not infected. In a call centre in South Korea, of 1,100 people tested, nearly 100 tested positive—that incident speaks for itself. On 10 March, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one person in a choir in Skagit County, Washington, infected 53 choristers, of whom two died. The virus was spread by a superspreader. This well-documented case was a clear indicator of breath-borne transmissibility. In another choir case, this time in Amsterdam and again well documented, a single chorister infected another 102 choristers. The list goes on. These and many more similarly documented cases should have alerted policy- makers to the dangers of transmissibility and the need for masks.

What has been the response of government? We now have the revised WHO guidance, which recommends mask wearing not only on public transport but in grocery stores, at work, at social and mass gatherings and in closed settings—including schools, churches and all places of religious worship. Then we have the view of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which strongly recommends the wearing of face coverings in public settings including stores and pharmacies. We have the Royal Society’s working group now strongly supporting masked protection. We also have the comments of KK Cheng, professor of public health at Birmingham University, who charges that without masks we have no defence whatever against asymptomatic superspreaders.

We then have the views of Professor George Gao, who heads the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. He is a highly respected veterinarian with an Oxford PhD in biochemistry. He did his post- docs at Harvard, specialising in immunology and virology. He states:

“The big mistake in the US and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks.”

You have to wear a mask, otherwise droplets come out of your mouth when you speak. He continues:

“Many people have asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets … escaping and infecting others.”

He has co-authored papers in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health used lasers to demonstrate transmissibility at up to five metres—that is with people without symptoms. That is said to be responsible for half of all cases. Now we have the BMA view. Again, I quote:

“Given there remains a considerable risk of infection … wearing masks can reduce the spread of the virus … measures should not be restricted to public transport but to all areas where social distancing is not always possible - the risk will be much less if the public adopts this now - not mid-June … the Government should ensure a supply of face coverings for the public, similar to practices in other nations.”

Yes, that is the BMA. The Government say that they go on the advice of experts; now they have it in that presentation.

On 14 May, 100 of the world’s top academics released a statement asking for mask wearing in all public places. During our researches, we were able to identify over 80 highly reputable research sources pointing to the use of masks in reducing onward transmission. I was particularly interested in the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, about distributing disposable face masks to all households, because it brings us to the nub of the problem. There can be no doubt that the failure to organise procurement, and inadequate mask-manufacturing capacity in the United Kingdom, have influenced policy.

To put it simply, in wartime the Government direct; we are in a war, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost and many more at risk, yet our approach to procurement has been appalling. We need a Beaverbrook Ministry of Supply, not a Hancock. Ministers are far too preoccupied with hiding behind preconceived views on virus transmission. They should spend more time more accurately interpreting reports from the Covid-19 Mobility Data Network.

Where do the public stand? In this debate, YouGov’s recent polling shows that 73% want compulsory masking in shops and 64% want masking in crowded spaces, such as town centres. The public are not stupid; they live in the real world. So where do I stand? I believe that a combination of track and trace, vaccination and masks will bring it all under control and avoid a second wave. We should have mandatory masking in offices, shops, schools, libraries, factories, hotels, pubs and garages—indeed, all confined areas apart from, obviously, one’s own home. A combination of these measures should bring it all to an end.

Finally, in Stop Press, I hear that only yesterday a Cambridge University modelling study, backed by considerable data, called for the immediate and universal adoption of face masks by the public. It stated that if widespread face-mask use by the public is combined with physical distancing and some lockdown, it may reduce the all-important R factor and offer an acceptable way of managing the pandemic, while reopening—before there is a vaccine—economic activity. That is all we want; let us just all get on with it.