But whatever the reason, mask mandates were a fool’s errand from the start. They may have created a false sense of safety — and thus permission to resume semi-normal life. They did almost nothing to advance safety itself. The Cochrane report ought to be the final nail in this particular coffin.
There’s a final lesson. The last justification for masks is that, even if they proved to be ineffective, they seemed like a relatively low-cost, intuitively effective way of doing something against the virus in the early days of the pandemic. But “do something” is not science, and it shouldn’t have been public policy. And the people who had the courage to say as much deserved to be listened to, not treated with contempt. They may not ever get the apology they deserve, but vindication ought to be enough.
Jefferson and his colleagues also looked at the evidence for social distancing, hand washing, and sanitising/sterilising surfaces — in total, 78 randomised trials with over 610,000 participants.
Jefferson doesn’t grant many interviews with journalists — he doesn’t trust the media. But since we worked together at Cochrane a few years ago, he decided to let his guard down with me.
Interestingly, 12 trials in the review, ten in the community and two among healthcare workers, found that wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to influenza-like or Covid-19-like illness transmission. Equally, the review found that masks had no effect on laboratory-confirmed influenza or SARS-CoV-2 outcomes. Five other trials showed no difference between one type of mask over another.
“Following the science” became a mainstay mantra of the pandemic, frequently trotted-out to justify unpalatable policy decisions such as banning hugging or denying fathers the right to attend the birth of a child.
Yet as Britain’s epidemic begins to fade away, it is becoming increasingly clear that many influential scientists were ignored, ridiculed and shunned for expressing moderate views that the virus could be managed in a way which would cause far less collateral damage.
Instead, a narrow scientific “groupthink” emerged, which sought to cast those questioning draconian policies as unethical, immoral and fringe. That smokescreen is finally starting to dissipate.
The World Health Organization amplified false Chinese statements about COVID-19 initially, while it dragging its feet on declaring an international emergency. Pandemic experts here clung to flu epidemic plans too, ignoring observable COVID-19 successes in East Asia and so ruling out any similar possibility of test-and-trace containment in the UK from the off.
Most public health experts then pivoted to being extremely pro-lockdown, but stuck rigidly to this even as the context, and so the costs and benefits of restrictions, changed with the vaccines and omicron.
Epidemiologists proved especially stubborn. Their modelling usually ignored the role of voluntary behavioural change entirely, so erred on the side of assuming catastrophic public health outcomes absent government mandates and restrictions. Hence, Freedom Day was dubbed “criminal” by scientists, while the government’s scientific advisers called for more restrictions last Christmas. Both proved wrong in retrospect.