Ministers overruled Sage and ditched masks after being told the economy would lose billions

Ministers decided to ditch mandatory face masks after being warned the UK economy would lose billions of pounds if people were made to wear them after 19 July.

By Jane Merrick, Richard Vaughan 

Modelling from reviews of social distancing and mass gatherings revealed public dislike for wearing face coverings at sporting, music and arts events.

Keeping compulsory face masks could cost the events and hospitality industries more than £4bn in lost revenues, the analysis suggested.

A Whitehall source told i that the research was compelling and the driving force behind the decision to scrap mandatory face masks when all restrictions are lifted in England.

This was despite warnings by scientists from The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) that the Government should keep “baseline measures” in place.

It suggests that ministers are now “following the economy” rather than the science as the country grapples with an exit wave from the pandemic.

The public dislike for face masks in recreational settings such as football matches and live concerts is in contrast to broad support for coverings on public transport, which is regarded as a necessary inconvenience, sources said.

But at a meeting in April, Sage recommended that face masks and other baseline measures such as working from home should be kept in place even after all other restrictions were lifted at the end of the roadmap.

The minutes, published on Monday, said: “Ongoing baseline measures and sustained long-term behavioural change will be required to control a resurgence in infections. Lifting restrictions may recreate conditions for super spreader events.”

The public health chief of one of the areas worst-hit by the Delta variant has added his voice to the widespread calls from scientists and medical experts to keep face masks in enclosed public spaces after 19 July.

Professor Dominic Harrison, director of public health for Blackburn-with-Darwen in Lancashire which bore the brunt of rising Delta cases in May and June, also called for a decision to be made as soon as possible on vaccinating 12 to 17-year-olds to limit transmission in secondary schools once the new term starts in September.

The independent vaccines committee the JCVI is still debating whether to extend jabs to 12-17-year-olds.

Prof Harrison told i: “I generally share the view of some colleagues that it is time for us to open up as much as possible – but the three things we need to make this safer are; to get on with vaccination for those aged 12-plus as soon as possible, increase ventilation measures in schools and other public indoor space and retain mask wearing (as now) in enclosed public space.

“With these mitigations we should be able to have maximum freedoms and minimal risk – but we need to be really clear – we will still not be completely risk free.”

Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, and the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance effectively backed Boris Johnson’s decision to scrap face masks by appearing alongside the Prime Minister in Monday’s press conference.

But both scientists wanted to make it clear they would continue to wear coverings in enclosed or crowded public places, reflecting concerns on Sage that people should be mindful of the infection risk.

Professor Calum Semple, a member of Sage, said this was the right approach from the Government’s top scientists.

He told Times Radio Breakfast: “The emphasis from the chief medical officer and the Government chief scientific adviser was to assess your environment.

“They both said they’re going to be wearing masks in many circumstances, as will I.”