A raft of lockdown measures were lifted in England last month in what was arguably the biggest step in the Government’s ‘roadmap’ out of the country’s third national lockdown.
As part of the easing of restrictions on 17 May, secondary school pupils and college students in England no longer have to wear face masks in class and communal areas, and indoor mixing can now take place.
MPs and parents have raised concerns about face coverings in class disrupting pupils’ learning and wellbeing since they were introduced in March, and was hoped the move will improve interaction between teachers and students.
But schools are just one area of life that’s been affected by the need to wear face coverings to protect ourselves against Covid-19, and many of us are keen to see them no longer needed in places like shops and on public transport.
So when might the wider population be able to be rid of face coverings?
Here is how it could play out.
When can I get rid of my face covering?
Though school children don’t have to worry so much about wearing face masks, everyone else does, and they are still mandatory in shops and on public transport in England, despite the 17 May easing of restrictions.
Face masks are still required in all indoor public settings.
Announcing his roadmap out of lockdown earlier this year, Boris Johnson told MPs that Step Four – the stage at which the Government hopes to “remove all legal limits on social contact” – will begin no earlier than 21 June.
Johnson’s roadmap did not give a date on when face masks may be downgraded from mandatory, but it is clear he is hoping that 99 per cent – if not all – restrictions can be lifted this stage.
However, in an announcement made on Monday (14 June), Step Four of the roadmap has now been pushed back by four weeks until 19 July, meaning face are likely to be required until then.
Although Mr Johnson has previously hinted there is a “good chance” the one-metre plus rule for social distancing could be ditched in June, as The Times reported on 3 May that social distancing rules could be lifted to allow One-way systems, screens and mask-wearing while moving around hospitality venues looks set stay for the time being, and audiences in theatres and cinemas are still expected to have to wear face coverings during performances.
What about in Scotland and elsewhere?
In Scotland, the requirement to wear face masks in enclosed spaces such as shops and other public areas, and on public transport, remains in all areas, levels 0 – 4.
In Wales, coverings are also still required in all indoor public spaces.
Will I ever be able to throw away my face mask?
In April, scientists advising the Government said there is nothing currently in the data to suggest that people will not be able to enjoy a relatively normal summer, though coronavirus cases may well rise as the autumn approaches.
Asked about mask-wearing in the coming months, one source said that vaccines are working so well, and there is such good uptake among members of the public, that things will return to much more like normal life over the summer months, with cases dropping very low in May.
However, masks and possibly other measures may be needed next autumn and winter if cases surge, they said.
Meanwhile, other experts have said it could take a few years to get back to “normal” life, with scientists predicting “inevitable” fresh waves of coronavirus cases hitting the UK.
Documents published in April by the Government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) suggested an increase in hospital admissions and deaths is “highly likely” during the later stages of the UK’s road map out of lockdown.
Professor Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said face coverings and some sort of social distancing may still be needed, and said “we are unfortunately going to have to live with coronavirus” for “many years”.
Are face masks here to stay?
Then of course is the threat of new, more transmissible variants that could be impervious to vaccines that do have the potential to spring up. And even once Britain is vaccinated and lockdown is lifted, how will the rest of the world look?
International travel may still be stunted long into the future as other nations tackle their own epidemics, and face masks while travelling internationally could long be recommended.
However it plays out, even if the Government announces that face coverings are no longer mandatory in places like shops and on public transport, you may still be seeing them for some time.
Many people may still choose to wear face coverings in such environments, even if they don’t “have" to.
The pandemic has no doubt changed society in myriad ways, and it may be hard for many people – especially those in vulnerable brackets – to let go of the security of a face covering.
Whether it's shielding oneself from Covid-19, other seasonal illnesses, or an as-yet-unimagined new epidemiological threat, the face mask is much more ingrained in our culture than it ever has been before.
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