UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson—whose government is not exactly known for his successful handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic—said he thinks that anti-vaxxers are “nuts” threatening public health as a UK-wide mask mandate program goes into effect.
Per the Guardian, while promoting flu shots at a surgical clinic in east London, Johnson told reporters, “There’s all these anti-vaxxers now. They are nuts, they are nuts… We want everybody to get a flu jab in the run-up to this winter.”
“… The reason for doing this is to protect the NHS in the winter months because, obviously, we’ve still got Covid—we’ve still got the threat of a second spike of Covid, and it’s vital therefore to keep that pressure off the NHS by everybody getting a flu jab, and I really hope everybody will,” Johnson added.
The NHS says it will be offering the flu vaccine to some 30 million people this year, according to the BBC, amid concerns that a flu season coinciding with the coronavirus could result in double infections, hospitals stretched beyond capacity, and medical personnel and other caregivers forced to take sick leave. Last year some 25 million doses were made available and some 15 million people took the NHS up on the offer.
That’s not to say Johnson’s Conservative government has handled the pandemic with anything approaching success, or that it has done all it could to prepare for flu season. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said last year that the implementation of mandatory vaccinations for state school students was being considered, but Johnson hasn’t moved on the issue despite polls showing up to 75 percent of UK general practitioners support compulsory measures.
Johnson has also been blasted by scientists for his response to the virus, with Imperial College epidemic modeling expert Neil Ferguson saying that the country’s death toll by early June could have been halved if lockdown measures were implemented a week earlier. His reluctant implementation of the mask mandate is far behind many other European nations that have concluded such measures are a critical tool in the fight against the coronavirus and follows months of begging from the medical community and the UK government’s own scientific advisers.
Johnson’s lax response to the news Dominic Cummings, one of his top advisers, had violated lockdown rules was blasted by British media across the political spectrum, and the incident undermined public trust in health authorities. To date, the UK has had around 300,000 confirmed cases of the virus and nearly 46,000 deaths, with Johns Hopkins statistics ranking it as having the highest case-fatality ratio and deaths per 100,000 people (68.64) of the 20 countries hardest hit by the virus.
The UK’s mandatory mask order will apply to anyone entering shops and other establishments like banks, post offices, enclosed transport hubs, and shopping malls, according to CNN, though “venues such as eat-in pubs, restaurants, gyms, and salons” which have established procedures to minimize risk are exempt, as are children aged 11 or younger and people with certain health conditions. Police will enforce the order and violators can be given a roughly $127 fine, though CNN noted many major supermarket chains and retailers have already said they would not enforce the rules.
A UK survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that 16 percent of respondents say they probably or definitely will not get vaccinated for the coronavirus if such a vaccine is developed. Another 15 percent said they were unsure of what they would do. Childhood vaccination rates have been declining in the UK for five years straight, with possible factors including baseless fears about vaccine safety and conspiracy theories spread on social media and elsewhere, a belief vaccines infringe on bodily autonomy, or even fear of needles. A survey in June showed just 21 percent of UK respondents said they wore masks in public.
In the U.S., the so-called debate—which could more accurately be termed a reactionary backlash—over face coverings is still ongoing, with Donald Trump shooting down the idea of a national mask mandate after refusing to wear one in public for months. Trump instead punted to states, as he has on virtually every other factor of the pandemic response ranging from testing to an “Opening Up America Again” plan that pressured states to end lockdown measures quickly while shifting responsibility for any consequences to governors.
State and local health authorities have been forced to chart their own direction. Some 39 states now have some form of mask mandate, according to CNN, while others have not and compliance has been slipshod. About 14 percent of U.S. respondents to a Gallup poll in mid-July said they never wore a mask outside the home, while 11 percent said they only wore one “sometimes” and four percent said they did so “rarely.” Among Republicans, 27 percent said they never wore a mask, 18 percent said sometimes, and nine percent said never, for a cumulative 54 percent.
Per the New York Times, Conservative MP Desmond Swayne attacked the mandate last week as a “monstrous imposition against myself and a number of outraged and reluctant constituents… Nothing would make me less likely to go shopping than the thought of having to mask up.” The House of Commons was nearly empty at the time due to the pandemic.