Should Masks Be Compulsory?

May 18, 2020
Coronavirus | Healthcare

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been widespread debate and, indeed, confusion over the merits of wearing a face mask and the extent to which it can reduce transmission of the virus. In April, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies suggested that, while we could not make claims on the efficacy of wearing masks, our polling results suggested that many members of the public, who have been significantly worried about the coronavirus, would feel safer if people were wearing masks. This increase in a general feeling of safety was worthy of consideration when it came to encouraging a scared public to return to a more normal life, as we had repeatedly argued that it has been the public, rather than the Government, that has driven the lockdowns.

It is increasingly believed that when someone wears a mask, they are protecting not just themselves, but also others around them by ensuring they contain droplets from their nose and mouth from dispersing widely. As the Government starts laying out the roadmap for reopening the UK economy—thus involving a greater degree of crowding in public spaces (particularly in public transportation)—the question of whether masks should be made compulsory (as is the case in several other countries) is in the minds of many members of the UK public.

Recent polling by Redfield & Wilton Strategies from this past Friday found that two-thirds of respondents (64%) think face masks should be compulsory on public transportation, with only 22% saying they should not be compulsory. This question did not divide respondents along political lines, with similar levels of support emerging across those who voted Conservative, Labour, or Liberal Democrat in the 2019 General Election (the support levels for compulsory masks on public transport are 66%, 63%, and 65%, respectively).

However, when respondents were asked if masks should be compulsory for anyone leaving their home (regardless of whether they use public transportation), the support rate for this was much lower (29%). Indeed, the majority of the public (56%) voiced opposition to having to wear masks in all public places. Demographically, younger respondents were more likely to support compulsory masks in all public places (38% support among those aged 18-24) than older respondents (only 25% support among those aged 65 and above), yet across virtually every age group the majority of respondents were opposed to this measure.

Moreover, 2019 Conservative voters were somewhat more resistant to compulsory masks in all public places (61% opposition) than those who voted Labour (52%) opposition. One potential explanation for this disparity would be that a greater number of older and Conservative-voting respondents live in rural or suburban areas with less density where they are less likely to come in close proximity with other people when they are outside, thus making them less likely to see the value of wearing a face mask everywhere.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, only 40% of respondents reported having worn a face mask in public so far. Whereas 16% of respondents always wear one in public and 17% do so sometimes, a plurality of respondents have never worn one and do not intend to start wearing one (36%). This plurality may be also be a product of people adhering strictly to the social distancing rules and not intending to leave their home, therefore again negating the need to wear a mask on most, if not all, occasions.

Male respondents were somewhat more likely (40%) to have no intention of starting to wear a mask in the future than female respondents (31%), suggesting that the difference in support levels across age and political groups is not entirely influence by the rural-urban divide, but also by varying perceptions of risk, with many male and older respondents paradoxically feeling less at risk even though the virus appears to affect male and older patients the hardest.

Despite the fact that a plurality of respondents (36%) said they have never worn a mask and do not intend to start wearing one, our research conducted in late April found that 86% of respondents would comply if the UK Government decided to require the public to wear masks or makeshift masks. When asked last month why respondents thought the UK Government had not mandated the use of masks (like in Austria and Spain, for example), 46% of respondents said they thought the reason was a shortage of face masks and the need to prioritise giving them to medical workers. Meanwhile, 39% then believed the Government’s stated concern of avoiding giving the public a false sense of security which could lead to less adherence to the social distancing rules. This original position will make it difficult for the Government to change position on this issue, as such a contradiction will confuse and dissuade members of the public from complying.

After all, wearing a mask is a new experience for the vast majority of the UK public. Among members of the UK public who have worn a mask at some point since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, it was the first time 69% of them had ever worn a mask in order to prevent catching a virus or illness. This is a stark contrast to other countries—particularly in East Asia—where there is a deeply-embedded culture of wearing a face mask whenever one feels ill or has symptoms in order to avoid spreading it to others. While this practice has been uncommon in the UK, there is a possibility that increased use of masks among those feeling ill will become a habit in the UK, helping reduce the spread not only of coronavirus, but also of the seasonal flu, the common cold and other illnesses.

Ultimately, the UK public appears to be supportive of face masks, wishing for their use to be compulsory at least on public transportation. This view likely reflects that public transportation carries greater risks of transmission of any virus or illness, whereas other public spaces in the UK carry a lower risk. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Government will follow countries such as Austria and Spain and introduce this rule as part of the incoming relaxation of social distancing rules.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.