Naturally, the confusion has sparked rumours of a Cabinet split although, according to one Cabinet minister, the prevarication has largely been down to Tories “wrestling with their own libertarian principles” rather than each other.
“If you’re a Tory and believe in the old adage ‘trust the people’, then you do have to think carefully about these things,” the minister said. “It’s easy if you’re a socialist. It’s mother’s milk to that lot – they want as much state intervention as possible, but Conservatives do tend to see mandation as a last resort.”
With the scientific evidence around the effectiveness of face masks still inconclusive, it seems the decision has been prompted by economic rather than health concerns. As one Department of Health source put it: “It’s more of a public confidence thing.”
The Cabinet minister agreed, saying: “Wearing a face covering is an act of altruism, really. It’s about preventing the spread rather than stopping yourself from getting it. What we are trying to do is get the balance right between encouraging people to feel safer when they are out shopping, and not putting people off shopping altogether.”
Ministers are said to be concerned that people are still behaving “over-cautiously” despite the recent lifting of restrictions. Car usage is only at around 70 per cent of its pre-coronavirus level despite public transport running well below capacity.
“You’d have thought it would be over 100 per cent if people aren’t using trains and buses,” the minister added. “What that tells us is that a lot of people are not only continuing to work at home, but also to stay at home.”
It seems that, when the Government’s messaging becomes muddled, there is no masking the original and most effective coronavirus slogan of them all.