Since the introduction of social distancing measures in the United Kingdom in March, there has been significant debate over the use of masks or face coverings. Unlike other countries, masks have so far not been compulsory in the UK, although they have been strongly recommended for users of public transportation. Indeed, initially, the UK Government advised against the wearing of masks, saying that mask-wearers may feel overly confident or may wear their masks in such a way as to increase the likelihood of catching the virus. These changes have led the public to observe, per a poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies this Thursday, that the Government has not been consistent in its policy towards masks.
As such, the use of masks in the United Kingdom is not yet widespread: our poll last week found that that 51% of UK respondents have never worn a mask or face covering when leaving their home since the start of the lockdown in March.
Moreover, despite the official guidance from the 11th of May that masks or face coverings should be worn when completing essential journeys on public transport, our poll found that a third of respondents who have used public transport within the last month have not worn a mask at all.
Three weeks ago, a poll by Redfield & Wilton Strategies found that almost two-thirds of the public (64%), with little differentiation based on 2019 General Election vote, believed that masks should be made compulsory on public transport. After considerable pressure from various stakeholders, the Government decided to change its policy from saying masks should be worn to saying they must be worn. As of today, in line with the reopening of non-essential shops, face coverings will be compulsory on public transport in England (but not in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). In light of this change, 78% of respondents now say they would wear a mask if they were to travel on public transport in the next week.
The new policy of requiring face masks to be worn on public transport is very popular across the political spectrum: 77% of respondents approve of the decision to require face masks on public transport. This result is an increase from the 64% who said they would approve of such a policy three weeks ago, suggesting that the public is increasingly viewing mask usage as an important step for easing the lockdown measures.
Unlike the overwhelming support for masks on public transport, the public appears somewhat more reluctant to wear them in other enclosed spaces such as supermarkets and shops. Even though their usage has been strongly suggested by the Government and its Chief Scientific Adviser, our research found that 50% of respondents plan to wear a face mask if they visit a supermarket next week.
Although 50% is a high figure considering mask usage in supermarkets and shops is still a voluntary decision, it is nevertheless lower than the 78% who plan to wear a mask on public transport this coming week. This discrepancy comes despite the fact that the differences in proximity and air circulation in public transport and supermarkets are often minimal. This lower number is likely a result of unclear Government guidance (or even a lack of compulsion). When asked if they would approve of a decision to require masks in such spaces, a majority of respondents said they would approve of it.
As mask usage becomes institutionalised on public transportation, it might be the case that its usage also becomes more common in supermarkets and shops, given the greater proportion of people that will own and carry a face mask. More likely, it will take a Government mandate to bring about this wider society-wide change. We at Redfield & Wilton Strategies will continue to monitor public attitudes towards mask usage in the coming weeks.