The sight of people sitting on trains or milling around the local supermarket wearing facemasks is one few of us in Wales could ever have imagined a little over a year and a half ago. 

However, as we settle into life in Alert Level Zero, the big question on many people’s lips is whether masks are here to stay.

It’s well known that mask-wearing has been much more established in countries long before the current pandemic.  In China for example, mask wearing as a way to prevent infectious disease has been a habit that has stuck since at least the early 20th century, following outbreaks of plague and pandemic flu. 

The Sars outbreak of 2003 saw mask-wearing intensify in those Asian countries most affected by it.  During the coronavirus pandemic, even as early as April last year, many countries in Asia saw between 70-90% of their population wearing face masks in indoor public places. 

By contrast, only 7% of the British public were wearing them at this point in time, considerably lower than many other European countries, including Spain, Germany and France. 

The main reason why is because they were not mandated. By this time last year, after they had been made compulsory in England on public transport in June and in shops in July, facemask wearing in the UK had increased to 75%.

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Why was the UK – including Wales, which didn’t make face masks compulsory in shops until 14th September – so slow to mandate masks in such settings?  It’s hard to know for sure, but one criticism is that the UK, unlike many other countries, didn’t take a precautionary approach on masks. 

The precautionary principle suggests that, in the absence of clear evidence, measures should be taken to mitigate against the possible negative impacts. 

In the early stages of the pandemic, there was debate amongst scientists over whether masks actually helped to protect the wearer, and even over the extent to which they prevented transmission.

Some scientists argued that wearing masks would lull people into a false sense of security and encourage them to mix more or handwash or socially distance less.  Some scientists argued that   We know with the benefit of hindsight this was incorrect. 

Most people have been remarkably adherent to rules in Wales, right the way throughout the pandemic.  Even over the past few months at least seven or eight out of 10 in Wales have been completely or nearly completely following Covid rules.

Quite simply, making something mandatory signals to people that it is important.  We are seeing this play out as the current restrictions ease, particularly in the contrast between face mask rules in England and Wales. 

Whereas masks are mandatory in Wales in shops and on public transport, in England they are advised but not required.  However, there are signs that public support for mask wearing as an important precaution is here to stay, at least in the short term. 

A recent poll found that as many as 8 in 10 in England feel that masks should be made mandatory on public transport.  In Wales, a recent survey by Public Health Wales found that eight out of ten in Wales still intend on wearing a face covering in indoor public places even after immediate restrictions end.

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But are masks here to stay for the long term? The good news is that we can decide that as a society. Although getting back to hugging, handshaking and not having to socially distance are all welcome developments, important to our emotional wellbeing, there is a strong public health argument for keeping masks in certain circumstances. 

A majority of the Welsh public seem to agree.  Another survey earlier this year, also by Public Health Wales, found that 86% think that mask wearing will be a part of life at least occasionally for years to come.

The important detail here is on which occasions?  Certainly, people should be wearing masks if they feel unwell, and have a cough or other related symptoms, and where they are not required to or unable to self-isolate.

Ideally, governments, industries and organisations should in the future be encouraging and supporting - financially and otherwise - workers to stay at home if they have any symptoms.  Where this is not possible, masks can be considered as a precaution to protect others.

Although we may not personally be at risk of serious illness or complications from Covid, flu or other respiratory and airborne viruses, the person we sit or stand next to on a bus or in a shop – or the person they then come into contact with – may not be so fortunate. 

Dr Simon Williams is senior lecturer in people and organisation at the School of Management, Swansea University

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