As England Drops The Mask for A Face-off with Covid amid Rising Cases, ‘Undercover’ Visitors Flummoxed

It is a strange sight of a paradox in London, as soon as one lands at Heathrow Airport. While Covid cases have been surging in the United Kingdom, few are wearing face masks as the requirement has been dropped in England, alongside lifting most pandemic curbs.

Travel to the UK is restriction-free with no need for negative Covid-19 reports anymore. From April 1, free mass testing will also cease to operate in England. Most pharmacies in London have not been offering free rapid-testing kits this week, to avoid people hoarding them for the days ahead, at least two shop staffers told News18. Free Covid testing centres across the city also bore a rather deserted look over the last 10 days. The lack of masked faces remains the most striking sight in London.

Some places in England do recommend masks. Pic/News18

“Our Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) has said there is no need to wear masks now. We are double-jabbed too and recently also got our booster doses. Things are open and the fear of Covid is almost gone here, which is good,” Stephanie and Jane, friends travelling on the London double-decker bus from Oxford Circus, told News18 this week. Stephanie says she did get Covid last year but managed fine. They were not wearing masks, like most on the bus. Some masked faces can be seen on the London Underground, but in most public places, however crowded they are, masks are rare.

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This seems disconcerting as Covid cases are on the rise in the UK, with about 89,000 reported on March 30, and the last 7-day average standing at nearly 1.12 lakh daily. About 20,000 people are hospitalised due to the infection as of date. But what the UK is banking on in its strategy to “live with the virus” is its exceptionally high vaccination rate, with 92% of people above 12 getting their first dose, 86% getting their second dose and nearly 68% getting a booster or a third dose as well, as per the latest data from the government. Booster or third doses are in fact exceeding the first or second dose daily count now in the UK.

A Covid testing centre in London. Pic/News18

BBC reported recently that masks are no longer legally required in most public spaces but it “recommended and encouraged” that people still wear face coverings in enclosed or private spaces where they are mixing with those they don’t know. Masks are not mandatory on London’s Tube, trains or buses, or at Heathrow airport. This seems rather odd to tourists coming here, especially from Europe or Asia, News18 found in conversations.

“We have been diligently wearing face masks and trying social distancing while out in public places but no one else seems to wear masks anymore. Most scientific advice says masks are the best defence against Covid-19. We are wearing masks to protect others but we also surely do not want to fall sick on a holiday here,” Telesa, and her partner, Martin, from Germany, told News18 near the London Eye. They cite the far tougher rules still in existence in Germany about wearing face masks and testing. Some tourists from the subcontinent, visiting the British Museum, expressed similar sentiments, saying masks must be worn by all.

A masked visitor at the British Museum. Pic/News18

The Financial Times reported on March 31 that Covid-19 infections are expected to be close to a record high when ministers end free mass testing in England on April 1. It said scientists and public health officials fear that the move will leave the country ill-equipped to react to the pandemic’s ever-changing threat. “It’s a near certainty that a new variant will emerge by the end of the year and it will be a struggle to wind back up testing,” it quoted a mathematical sciences professor saying. The UK is expected to be in the grip of a fast-rising wave driven by the highly infectious Omicron BA.2 sub-variant, the FT said.

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