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Is the United Kingdom leading the beginning of a no-masks era?

The start of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan towards the end of 2019 caused China to begin the “masks era”, followed by the rest of the world. Amidst the panic and data gathering on the magnitude of the virus, scientists found COVID-19 as an air-borne disease and advised the wearing of masks to prevent its spread. The advancement of vaccines came into play towards the end of 2020. Even then, countries around the world have enforced the wearing of masks into their COVID-19 policies and restrictions, especially because of the continuous surges of new variants, like Delta and Omicron.

At the end of January 2022, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom (UK) announced dropping their Plan B measures (COVID-19 restrictions). As a result, wearing masks is no longer mandated in public spaces, and so is the need for COVID passports.

This move is seemingly an indication that the pandemic has reached its threshold and that Prime Minister Johnson could be championing the beginning of a “no-masks era” for the rest of the world. Countries that have achieved high vaccination rates like the UK (over 80%), with lower mortality rates, could be expected to ease the mask-wearing restrictions as well, especially as the West moves towards the end of winter, where the warmer seasons have indicated a drop in the infection rates.

However, the prospective impacts of the scrapping of this policy could weigh heavily on both health security and economic security. The attainment of high vaccination rates does not mean lower infection rates. This has been indicated by statistics all over Europe since the start of the 2021 winter, when the infection rates have skyrocketed even in the presence of higher vaccination rates. Higher infection rates result in increased pressure on the health sector, which translates into economic strains, be it on heightened health care budget or less manpower in the workplace.

Given the elongated impacts of COVID-19 on personal health, like the extended absence of smell & taste and the fact that wearing masks has also been a habit cultivated over the last two years, most people could be expected to be hesitant towards removing masks. Furthermore, the risks that come with infection, for both vaccinated and unvaccinated, like hospitalization and death, which might be lessened but not completely ruled out, are detrimental. These uncertainties and risks on personal health become driving factors in convincing citizens to take personal responsibility on the matter of wearing masks and not disregarding them.

The past two years, however, have been full of make-shift adjustments to governance, economies, and personal lives, and people are undoubtedly exhausted from these changes. The return to normalcy, albeit heavily debated, will have to start somewhere and, perhaps the no-masks mandate led by the UK, is that start.

Western countries, that have advanced health sectors and where governments have found ways to revamp their economies even at the surge of new variants, seem to have picked up momentum on the dropping masks policy. Second and third world countries may safely follow once the issue of vaccine inequity has been addressed and their vaccination rates have increased to levels like those of first world countries.

Scientists have indicated that the only way the COVID-19 pandemic can be ended is by herd immunity. It may be that the scrapping of masks is what the world needs to address issues such as vaccination reluctance, lack of advanced laboratories for vaccination production in certain parts of the world, and inequity in vaccine distribution.