Opinion | The University’s mask policy is no longer fit for purpose

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George Flay, Neuroscience, First year

Having been nearly a trimester since the government’s lifting of all COVID-19 measures in England, you could perhaps be forgiven for wondering why the University of Bristol continues to self-impose a mask mandate inside its buildings.

The University is not alone in this regard. More than half of Russell Group universities continued to demand that their students wear face coverings even after all restrictions were officially dropped in July.

If you are a student at the University of Bristol, or perhaps one of the universities acting in parallel, you will no doubt have noticed the emails oversaturated with reminders to wear masks on campus and the lectures bookended by appeals for compliance.

One such lecture slide reads, ‘We expect and recommend that you wear a face covering when you are indoors in university buildings, unless you are exempt. Nobody can demand that another person removes a mask. KEEP EACH OTHER SAFE.’

But why, with the majority of the population vaccinated and daily life resembling its former self, are we still being forced to wear masks?

I disagree that the benefits are worth the cost, especially when using them so sporadically

After a year and half of a brutal pandemic, a hesitancy to remove one of our few defences against the virus is of course understandable. But we must balance the now dwindling dangers of COVID against the innumerable benefits of shedding our face masks.

We wear them at the expense of proper communication and the ability to build interpersonal relationships, not to mention the irritation they can cause, making concentration an unnecessary challenge. I do not dispute that face masks reduce transmission of COVID-19. But I disagree that the benefits are worth the cost, especially when using them so sporadically.

In our time off-campus we are unrestricted in our mingling with others. We may walk naked-faced into any shop, any pub, any club in groups of any size. And we do. So few of us are restricting the way we live when we are not under instruction to – the social benefits of forgoing masks have clearly not escaped our notice.

It seems to me futile to force a class of students to don their masks - with all the harms of doing so - when the night before they were crammed into PRYZM together with not a mask in sight. What sort of protection does that offer?

The opening of the above message also reminds us that the University no longer has the might of legal enforcement behind it. If we are not required by law to wear masks, why are we required to do so by the university? Is it perhaps little more than a reach for good publicity?

The University ought instead to focus on promoting the vaccine

The appeal then continues with a strange commandment: namely that nobody can demand another person removes a face covering. ‘Strange’, I say, because those of us who would not elect to wear a mask have not made – and do not wish to make – such a demand. Our objective is not to make others do anything they do not wish or to take away their choice. It is simply to detach our choice from theirs.

And we must ask ourselves, are face masks even necessary for a largely young and healthy student population whose minuscule chances of developing severe symptoms are diluted further by a widely available vaccine, proven to be effective against COVID’s more malign manifestations?

The paragraph’s strident close – KEEP EACH OTHER SAFE – suggests that not wearing a mask endangers your fellow student. But let us not forget that masks are not the only measure we take to protect our health, nor are they even the most effective. They are simply the most noticeable. Need we remind ourselves of the success of the vaccine rollout? But this triumph has been ignored.

As I have repeated ad nauseam, outside University buildings we are not self-imposing such restrictions. Yet we insist on keeping up this facile charade to ostensibly make ourselves feel safer. But feelings are not the compass by which we should chart our course for normality. Feelings will not provide COVID immunity.

The University ought instead to focus on promoting the vaccine by showing that its protection allows us to discard the more adverse measure like face masks.

Because, while it ignores our vaccination status, by continuing to enforce masks on the vaccinated, the University sends out the message that it distrusts the vaccine it meanwhile promotes. I would argue that building distrust in the far more essential vaccine is infinitely more dangerous than giving students the choice over whether or not they wear a mask.

The messages are the same across the country: universities want to get back to their normal means of teaching while keeping their students safe. And though they are right to look out for the wellbeing of students, they mustn’t be crippled by their caution. This mask mandate lacks any nuance and it stands in our way of taking an essential step towards normality.

Featured image: Unsplash/Anshu A


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