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Last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson commented on the UK’s ability to tackle the second wave of coronavirus, saying that countries like Italy and Germany have responded more effectively because Great Britain is a “freedom loving country”. This comment sparked debate about why countries like Italy, the first affected country in Europe, succeeded in diminishing daily cases to 6,000 compared with 17,000 in the UK.

Researchers have outlined that possible explanations for a second wave in the UK are linked to its moderate restrictions especially regarding face coverings that were implemented too late and too lightly. In England, face coverings only became mandatory for people visiting shops, supermarkets, and public transportation on the 24th of July 2020 with rules not applying to retail, supermarket and transportation staff. 

On the other hand, Italy implemented mask-wearing early on in the pandemic. During lockdown, masks had to be worn both indoors and outdoors with no possibility of exercising outdoors. Failure to do so could lead to €400 to 1000 fine

Even though the United Kingdom has implemented similar fines of £100, £50 if paid within 14 days, compliance is very low. Only 38% of British people wear masks in public places compared to 83% in Italy, according to You Gov. Why is compliance so low? 

Low compliance could in part be linked to major supermarkets chains in the UK such as Waitrose, Co-op, Sainsbury’s, and Asda refusing to enforce the rule despite police pleas. These companies urge shoppers to “play their part”, giving too much choice to its customers. This is increasingly problematic for the British Government which finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. 

On the one hand Boris Johnson is historically inclined to emphasise personal freedom, and to shy away from authoritarian tendencies. On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s close personal brush with the virus, and the fact that cases continue to creep up, underline the fact that COVID-19 is a deadly threat which should not be underestimated. 

Meanwhile, in Italy, bars and restaurants are keen to enforce the rules as police checks are increasingly frequent. If a customer is found flouting a rule, like mask-wearing, then not only is the customer fined but so are staff and the owners of the establishment. This could be applied to the UK in pubs, restaurants, and supermarkets, enabling the shift of responsibility from the customer to the owners and staff. Retailers would be more incentivised to take a proactive attitude towards enforcing these rules. 

In addition, face-mask wearing should be extended to staff members working in an indoor environment in an attempt to legitimise their plea for their customers wearing one, together with higher fines. This incentivises companies to enforce the rules, refusing entry to those failing to wear a face mask and ensuring the safety of all its customers. 

One of the criticisms of these policies is the perception that civil liberties are being infringed upon. In July 2020, hundreds of people gathered in Hyde Park to protest against face masks having become mandatory. Further restrictions could potentially exacerbate the current situation and lead to rising numbers of protests. The use of masks, however, should not be seen as an infringement on personal liberty but rather as a collective, necessary precaution unique to this particular historical moment. 

Opponents to these measures state that there are too many economic downfalls in implementing harsher restrictions. However, according to one study, wearing face-masks could actually benefit the economy in the long run. These measures would help to control the spread of the virus, diminish its daily growth amongst the population of approximately 1.5%, and prevent a second round of lockdown measures that would otherwise hit GDP significantly. 

According to the data collected in the first lockdown by the Office of National Statistics, between March and April 2020, the UK faced a GDP fall of 20.4%, three times worse than the 2008 crisis. Moreover, the wide-spread use of masks could create reassurance in shoppers who are more willing to resume their normal shopping activities both in town centres and high streets. This will contribute to consumer consumption growth and stimulation of the economy. 

Therefore, compliance is tremendously important in controlling the virus and protecting the economy. Learning lessons from the Italian Government, the United Kingdom should start to adopt stricter regulations regarding face masks, which should include penalising the shops, restaurants and bars, and higher fines for transgressions. This could be the most pragmatic, economically-friendly way forward to deal with this complex crisis.

Eleonora is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Nickolay Romensky]