The “do as I say, not as I do” approach to political messaging was again displayed last week when Boris Johnson urged people to wear masks in enclosed spaces, shortly after leading a cabinet meeting of 27 maskless ministers and eight similarly uncovered observers.

Studies suggest masks cut Covid-19 transmission by up to 80%.Although there is disagreement about how much protection different types of mask offer the wearer, the science indicates that pretty much any covering protects the community from the wearer. It is this uneven interdependence that means masks are extremely effective at revealing hypocrisy.

Few places demonstrate the contested role of the mask more clearly than the London underground system. “Face coverings must be worn for the full duration of journeys on the TfL network, including inside our stations and bus stations,” states the Transport for London website, which also lists no less than 11 categories of exemption. This message is continually repeated over loudspeakers, and on advertising hoardings within underground stations.

Yet as many as half the travellers on the system are now ignoring this stipulation. On Friday, I travelled from Queen’s Park to Oxford Circus on the Bakerloo line. When I got off, there were 40 people in the carriage – only 16 of whom were wearing masks.

Commuter Sun Oh said she was ‘terrified’ of people who were not wearing masks coughing or sneezing on her
Commuter Sun Oh said she was ‘terrified’ of people who were not wearing masks coughing or
sneezing on her.
Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

James Lennie, who was maskless in Oxford Circus station, said that as the majority of people had now been double vaccinated, the risk was carried by those who had elected not to get jabbed. “So why should I put myself out if they’re not wanting to help themselves?” he said.

While the vaccination offers up to 90% protection from infection, it is not foolproof. People can, and do, become infected – some requiring hospitalisation – after being fully vaccinated. Lennie was aware of this, pointing out that he usually wore a mask, but he was not convinced that masks work.

“I can’t remember the name of the guy who comes on morning TV or whatever,” he said, “but he says, basically, in terms of coronavirus germs, you can fit a bus through the masks.”

Further along the busy platform, Sun Oh was sitting without a mask on, but said that she would before boarding the train. “When I pass someone who’s not wearing a mask, I’m almost terrified they’re going to cough or sneeze on me and I almost hold my breath,” she said.

She said: “As a woman, sure it messes up your lipstick” but that, as a friend of hers put it: “Anyone who doesn’t wear a mask is a massive cock.” After we had finished speaking, she fished a mask out of her bag.

Several people said that they had just forgotten to wear a mask that day, but others, such as Diana, a housewife from Wembley, north-west London, were adamant that as she had been double vaccinated it was no longer an issue, even as a TfL announcement reminded passengers of their obligation to cover up their mouths and noses.

“I had a friend who caught corona when he was wearing a mask,” said Diana, by way of explanation. “And he died in hospital. I stopped wearing a mask when I had the vaccine.”

Alicia and Josh said wearing a face covering was a matter of individual choice
Tube travellers Alicia and Josh said they thought wearing a face covering was a matter of individual choice. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Masked passengers seemed to be divided in their response to their uncovered fellow travellers. Some, such as Alicia and Josh, who were unmasked on the platform but about to put theirs on, said that they thought it was a matter of individual choice. Others, including Jack Phillips, travelling with a baby in a pram, thought the tube was the one place that everyone should abide by the rules. “Actually, I think I’ll always wear one from now on, because of colds and flu,” he added.

Despite TfL’s continual reminders to mask-up, many passengers believe that it is not mandatory, and that all such restrictions came to an end in England on “freedom day” on 19 July. No one I spoke to claimed any kind of exemption.

Travelling north on the Bakerloo line to Paddington was a group of door-to-door salespeople, all of whom were uncovered. They traded stories of how irate other passengers got, noting both the silent and angry protests to which they had been subjected. One recalled that a passenger got up and found another seat because he was not wearing a mask. “I didn’t mind,” he said. “It just gave me more space.” “Someone complained to me from the other side of the carriage,” said his friend Charlie, a young man in his 20s. “I said, ‘I don’t have Covid and it’s not your business.’ He started screaming at me. He was very rude.”

Another of the group, a woman called Julia, said she thought that people on public transport should wear one. “You are on public transport!” shouted her colleague, and everyone laughed.

When they disembarked, a man in his 40s wearing a mask followed after them, turning to me at the door. “I don’t agree with anything they said,” he announced, his voice quivering with passion. “I always wear a mask. I’ve had Covid and it’s really affected me.” He looked haunted by the experience.

If half of the London underground’s passengers are not wearing masks, it is clear that the system is not in a strong position to inhibit infection, particularly when the cold and flu season starts in earnest.

The lack of public agreement on the matter is symptomatic of the mixed messages that have characterised this government’s response to the pandemic. So it is perhaps no coincidence that tube passengers are increasingly following the example set by cabinet ministers.

Whatever Johnson says in contrast to his actions is likely to be greeted in the same manner as TfL’s announcements: as a background noise that can be complacently ignored.

• This article was amended on 21 September 2021 to set out in direct quotes, and thus more accurately reflect, what was said by commuter Sun Oh.


Andrew Anthony

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Maskless ministers are peddling dangerous nonsense | Letters
Letters: Dr Karen Postle says Tory MPs’ views on masks would be mildly amusing if it weren’t for the gravely serious consequences, while Susannah Kipling despairs that ‘virtue’ is being hijacked as a term of abuse. Plus letters from Emma Blashford-Snell, Mike Terry, Rosemary Gill and Christine Gallagher


25, Oct, 2021 @5:00 PM

Article image
'The more vaccine projects we have, the better our chances'
Leading scientist warns of stumbles along the way to Covid-19 immunisation

Robin McKie

28, Mar, 2020 @8:06 PM

Article image
The defeat of polio proved that immunisation saved lives, but there's a sting to the tale
The rising number of vaccine-derived polio outbreaks has important implications for how we deal with Covid-19

Robin McKie Science editor

15, Nov, 2020 @9:45 AM

Article image
UK vaccine volunteers to help prepare for next virus at new Pandemic Institute
The Liverpool site will work with other international centres to research the threat of emerging disruptive diseases

James Tapper

12, Sep, 2021 @5:06 AM

Article image
UK scientists look at reducing boosters to save vaccine for rest of the world
JCVI considers lower third jab dosage to release stocks for poorer nations

Michael Savage

22, Aug, 2021 @9:56 AM

Article image
Pfizer and AstraZeneca ‘highly effective’ against India Covid variant
A Public Health England study has revealed the vaccines can be up to 88% effective after a second dose

Robin McKie

22, May, 2021 @6:28 PM

Article image
Public health measures are key to curbing Covid in UK, say scientists
On the second anniversary of the first lockdown, experts including Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar, outline what needs to be done to cope with pandemics

James Tapper and Michael Savage

20, Mar, 2022 @8:30 AM

Article image
UK scientists warn of urgent need for action on vaccines to head off autumn Covid wave
Expert fear that new variants will emerge and stress the need to prepare the best drugs to combat it

Robin McKie, Science Editor

02, Jul, 2022 @7:21 PM

Article image
I’ve had my first vaccine jab. It gives me hope of liberation... but not yet
Exactly a year after his first story about coronavirus, our science editor received the Pfizer injection last week. Here he reflects on a remarkable scientific achievement

Robin McKie Science Editor

24, Jan, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
New Covid variants ‘would set us back a year’, experts warn UK government
Vaccine-beating variant is ‘realistic possibility’, say scientists, amid calls for contingency plans to be revealed

Michael Savage

14, Aug, 2021 @11:01 PM