Northern Ireland is lagging far behind Great Britain on the wearing of face masks

Over the last four months, the percentage of the population in Great Britain wearing face masks in public has steadily increased.

However, data from YouGov suggests that the percentage of the population wearing masks in Northern Ireland has remained flat over the last few months, and as a result the percentage of the population wearing masks in Northern Ireland is now lagging significantly behind England, Scotland and Wales. The chart above shows how mask wearing rates by region in the UK have changed since April.

The chart below puts use of face coverings in public places in Northern Ireland in an international context for the month of July. Note that there was no data for July for Finland, Sweden or Denmark, all of whom had low incidences (less than 10%) of face covering uptake in June.

Following a confusing and contradictory set of announcements from the Northern Ireland Executive on the issue, the Northern Ireland Executive are set to review uptake of face coverings on the 20th of August, and will “implement the power to make this mandatory” if there hasn’t been “a significant increase” by this point.

It is not clear what data they will use to review this, nor is it clear what a “significant increase” means.

The Health Minister Robin Swann has said that he expects 80% uptake by the 20th of August, and clearly there will need to be a very dramatic increase over the next month if this is to become reality. Even if the number of people wearing face coverings “sometimes” or “rarely” are included, only 37% of people in Northern Ireland have used a face covering at all in Northern Ireland over the month of July.

It is unclear why the Executive have dithered and prevaricated so much on this issue. However, East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson has been arguing on Twitter that mandatory use of face masks will adversely impact the retail sector.

There is no evidence whatsoever to back up this claim. On the contrary, polling recently released by Ipsos MORI of residents in Great Britain are more likely to visit shops if face masks were mandatory; 25% of those surveyed said that they’d be more likely to visit shops, compared with 21% who said they’d be less likely to visit shops.

By a huge margin, people think that it is important to wear a face mask in public; 86% said it was essential or important, compared with 10% who said it was not important.

The wearing of face masks is not a binary choice between public health and the economy. It is hugely beneficial to both; people are more likely to shop on the high street if their use is made mandatory, and it mitigates against the risk of having to implement further lockdowns.

It is a simple, low cost measure that will help protect both lives and livelihoods, and the continuing dithering and delay by the Executive makes no sense.