Coronavirus face masks don’t need Saltires and Union Jacks – Susan Dalgety

There is evidence that masks help reduce the spread of coronavirus so the public should start using them – but not turn them into political statements, writes Susan Dalgety.
Masks are not a guarantee against infection and some fear they could provide false reassurance, encouraging people to engage in more risky behaviour (Picture: John Devlin)Masks are not a guarantee against infection and some fear they could provide false reassurance, encouraging people to engage in more risky behaviour (Picture: John Devlin)
Masks are not a guarantee against infection and some fear they could provide false reassurance, encouraging people to engage in more risky behaviour (Picture: John Devlin)

The first time I wore a mask in public I felt completely exposed. Standing in the queue for my local discount supermarket, I felt everyone was staring at me, laughing at the sight of a red-faced older woman with a piece of brightly coloured Malawi cloth stretched across her mouth and nose.

My glasses started to steam up as soon as I hit the vegetable aisle and by the time I made it to the yellow tape denoting the check-in queue, I was hyper-ventilating.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Never again,” I panted as I, carefully, removed my home-made mask and breathed in the sweet sea air of Fisherrow. “Masks don’t work anyway,” I muttered to myself as me and my trolley trundled home.

Six weeks later and I have a selection of masks, which I put on every time I go into a shop and will wear if I ever get on a 26 bus again. My new favourites are a gift from a dear friend who, unexpectedly, sent me a pack of three last week, hand-made by a gifted Edinburgh artist, Tzipporah Johnston. These are much more sophisticated than my own home-made efforts, with a pocket for a filter, a wire to ensure a good fit round my nose, and instructions on how to best use them.

“Change the mask as soon as it is damp,” writes Tzipporah, “and when you get home put it straight in the washing machine or bucket of soapy water.”

Read More
Face masks may become mandatory in Scotland says Nicola Sturgeon

But my day-to-day masks, the ones I slip in my pocket when I am popping into the newsagent to buy Scotland on Sunday, are plain, black stretchy polyester from ebay.

I bought them when I realised that, on balance, masks probably do work, and that inevitably they would become compulsory, as Nicola Sturgeon hinted on Thursday. England is already there. Transport secretary Grant Shapps has just announced that face coverings will be required on public transport from June 15.

But if masks do become mandatory, will we wear them? The evidence from my weekly supermarket run suggests that Scots are still reluctant to cover up. Sometimes I am the only person in Lidl sporting a mask. Rarely are there more than two or three of us.

I took to Twitter to find out. Amid the inevitable jokes and memes of Dominic Cummings (thanks @PolGaloreScot), a rather reluctant consensus emerged.

Yes, we will wear them, if we have to. Some of us already do. They are pretty uncomfortable, impossible if you are asthmatic, or deaf. Where will we buy them? Do they work?

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Shetland GP Susan Bowie (@docsuzy), who has been an advocate of masks since the virus emerged, is convinced they are necessary. “I have worn one from the start, to see every patient, going to the supermarket.”

“There is lots of good evidence for masks,” she writes, citing the work of Professor Trisha Greenhalgh (@trishgreenhalgh) of Oxford University, whose research helped persuade Grant Schapps. “If everyone wore a mask, it would be a way out of this,” Susan insists.

She is so certain masks make a difference she intends making one for each of her patients. “I am hoping that it will be the fashion accessory for the winter,” she adds.

Dr Margaret McCartney, a Glasgow-based GP (@mgtmccartney), is not persuaded the evidence supports compulsory mask-wearing. “I am so sad no-one seems interested in testing and evaluating a recommendation based on weak, mixed, research...” she writes. And she goes on to cite three potential harms from forcing people to wear masks: an increase in risky behaviour because people are falsely reassured by their mask; policy makers will be tempted to relax other restrictions because they assume masks work; and masks cause problems for people with hearing loss and cognitive impairment.

Lara (@ginnymelons) sums up a lot of people when she tweets, “I bought a box of (disposable) masks from Boots, £30 for 50. Could get very expensive if I need to start travelling to work on the bus again.”

Director of the Open University in Scotland, Susan Stewart (@Scotto_Voce), spoke for all specs wearers. “I wear one,” she says, “but claustrophobic and glasses steam up.”

But, reflecting the mood of public spiritedness which has seen us survive weeks of lockdown, she supports making face coverings mandatory: “It is a small ask of us and a necessary evil.”

Former Scottish health minister, Malcom Chisholm (@MalcolmChishol1), agrees. “Seems to me the key message is if we all wear masks, we all protect each other where social distancing hard or impossible.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

And he insists that it must be mandatory, otherwise “there’s just a few people helping to protect others but unprotected against majority without masks”.

That is why I wear a mask. The clinical research that I, a layperson, can understand, clearly suggests that wearing a mask helps prevent the spread of coronavirus.

If wrapping a piece of cloth around my face while searching the supermarket shelves for an elusive bag of plain flour helps end this nightmare, then why resist?

I have even found a simple fix to stop my glasses from steaming up, one recommended by doctors. Wash your lenses with washing up liquid before leaving the house. It works.

But I have one plea. Let’s keep politics out of masks. In America, mask wearing has become a weapon in the culture war that is threatening to tear the country apart. Trump’s opponents wear masks, increasingly with political slogans such as “I can’t breathe” to show their allegiance.

President Trump, perhaps not surprisingly, still refuses to wear one, recently mocking a reporter in a mask as “politically correct”, prompting his presidential opponent Joe Biden to accuse Trump of “stoking deaths”.

“He’s a fool, an absolute fool to talk that way,” Biden said in a CNN interview. “Presidents are supposed to lead, not engage in folly and be falsely masculine.”

My genuine fear is that when masks become compulsory, we will see a rash of Saltires and Union Jacks on people’s faces. There are already “Yes2” masks for sale on social media and some SNP MPs wear Saltire-emblazoned masks in Westminster.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Life is dispiriting enough at the moment without symbols of division becoming de rigeur at the supermarket or on the morning commute. Let’s stick to black. Or penguins. Flowers even. Just not flags.

See Tzipporah Johnston’s work at

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit now to sign up.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Joy Yates

Editorial Director

Related topics:



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.