As the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, it continues to lurch just about every nation it hits into a period of social and economic instability. Governments have been forced to think on their feet to implement strategies that work to contain the spread of the virus to reduce the number of casualties., In addition to this, they have also been required to come up with measured economic responses that act to facilitate the recovery of industries that have been hit hardest.

However, with the risk of a second wave looming on the horizon, there is a great deal of debate around how best to open up the market without jeopardising the progress being made in curbing the spread of the virus. This is, in part, why the idea of mandatory face-covering in public spaces has taken off so greatly. Not only does it significantly lower the transmission rates of the virus, but it also allows society to reintegrate safely at a slow but steady pace.

But how valid is this idea of mask economics? Is it a proven method of maintaining the safety of the population while gently nudging up consumer activity? Or is it promoted as a solve-all solution by economists that bypasses the importance of other significant safety regulations? To answer these questions we need to explore the benefits and potential limitations on relying on mandatory face covering while looking around the world for guidance, to see if mask measures really is enough.

How badly was the UK hit by Covid-19

With over 40,000 deaths recorded since the virus graced our shores in early March, the UK’s response in tackling the virus has been viewed as somewhat of a cautionary tale for many other countries around the globe. From the official lockdown being instated too late, to confusing and contradictory information being issued once it was, our governments handling of Covid-19 has come under fire by many different sides. And, as our nations death toll grew, our economy shrank, and lockdown measures reduced the U.K’s GDP by 19.1% throughout the first three months of quarantine.

Even though most key industries saw an initial uptick of around 1.8% once lockdown regulations were lifted, they didn’t reach the 5% growth that most economists predicted. So, with the economy in desperate need of a resurrection and the risk of a second winter wave of coronavirus looming, is simply making face coverings mandatory the key to keeping businesses open and boosting levels of consumer trade? Or may relying on compulsory mask-wearing not be enough to prevent the full extent of the second wave - which has the potential to plunge our economy back into a deep freeze this winter?

What help is available for small businesses?

Aside from relying on mandatory mask-wearing to recover the dents to your business, there are other ways to tide yourself over until foot traffic eventually picks up again. There are a variety of government-led schemes that are focused on providing financial support to small and medium-sized businesses (SME’s) across the country. For example, the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) is designed to help businesses that are losing revenue throughout the pandemic access government finance. For more information on this loan and for help with how to apply, just click here.

How could masks be effective?

Facial coverings in public are being used globally as a primary way to prevent the spread of transmission. They have been used as a preventative measure for infections dating back to the 2002 SARS outbreak and before, so it’s no surprise their use has become widespread during the Covid-19 pandemic. Here are some of the reasons why masks are being widely accoladed as a viable way to curb the impact of Covid-19.

Masks reduce the number of infections

Despite the contested advice from the UK’s chief medical officer at the start of the pandemic, masks have been empirically proven to reduce rates of infection. They are successful at preventing the spread of the virus because they prevent droplets that are produced from sneezing, coughing and talking from leaving one persons’ mouth from infecting another.

As a report conducted by the global investment firm Goldman Sachs revealed, in the U.S, higher rates of mask use have been associated with lower rates of infection. With a countrywide mask mandate being predicted to cut the growth of new Covid-19 infections by as much as 25%. Also, as many Asian countries like South Korea and Taiwan have illustrated, widespread mask usage and a cultural acceptance of face-covering in public have dramatically slowed down the spread of new cases emerging.

Even though it’s hard to measure their effectiveness with complete clarity, they have the widespread backing of the healthcare community and there is absolutely no evidence that they have ever been counterintuitive to one’s health. While the impact this has on public health is obvious, the benefits that they can provide in reducing costs associated with healthcare is also significant. And with the HM Treasury already pumping around £31.9 billion into the health service, any way to dramatically reduce infection rates will unquestionably provide a huge helping hand to the UK’s economy.

They allow businesses to reopen

Another massive way that the widespread adoption of masks is likely to boost the UK economy, is because of their ability to allow businesses to re-open and stay open. The reason why millions of businesses were forced to close across the UK in the first place was because of the heightened risk of the virus spreading, but if face covering is required in all public businesses, this significantly lowers the risk of infection.

As a study by Flexman et al. has concluded, if mandatory mask-wearing is enforced in accordance with strict social distancing guidelines for the next 12 to 18 months, it could remove the need to put the economy into ‘switch off, switch on mode’. This would mean that there would be more chance of the economy recovering steadily without the risk of going back into a full-scale lockdown, which could cost the UK economy an estimated 5% loss of GDP.

They increase consumer trust

With online shopping surging by 129% in the first month of the lockdown, and the e-commerce market witnessing a growth of around £5.6 billion throughout this calendar year, buying goods online has increasingly been used as a safe and easy alternative to in-person shopping. While this consumer uncertainty spells success for many e-retailers, many brick-and-motor businesses have been forced to close their doors due to a lack of footfall.

However, as masks are being made mandatory in retail outlets, consumer anxiety is predicted to fall, as their safety and protection from the virus is more likely to be guaranteed. Even Matt Hancock, the UK’s health secretary agrees that mandating the use of mask-wearing in public businesses will give people the confidence to shop safely. And this, in turn, will encourage in-person consumer activity which could breathe life back into the many high streets that have been devastated by the economic impact of the virus.

Are there drawbacks this all-mask approach?

While the benefits of masks speak for themselves, there have been unclear messages regarding where their uses should be prioritised over other restrictions. In addition to this, there have also been doubts regarding the public’s capability to wear them correctly, if at all.

Fears of masks shortages for healthcare and frontline workers

When the pandemic first struck the UK the World Health Organisation (WHO) disseminated confusing information referring to where the masks should be directed. Due to a mass shortage of PPE in the UK and overseas, front line healthcare and essential workers were severely lacking access to basic equipment that was designed to protect them from the virus. For this reason, the government was hesitant to instate nationwide face-covering regulations and they also prevented the wider population from stockpiling such supplies.

However, due to a large scale effort to ramp up mask supplies, 10 new mask manufacturing sites and 34 tonnes of machinery were repurposed to meet the UK’s high demand for face coverings. This, alongside the fact that other types of cloth facial coverings are now permitted to be used in public spaces, means that there is no longer a threat of widespread mask shortages.

Scepticism surrounding their effectiveness

Alongside the WHO’s initial fear of mask shortages for those in need, they also claimed that the public’s incorrect use of facial masks could actually increase one’s risk of infection. This is majoritively due to the fear of people keeping their masks on for extended periods of time without regularly washing them. However, this claim appears to be largely unsubstantiated as masks come with detailed instructions as to how to wear them, and information regarding their use is readily available in a variety of other alternative forms.

Can people in the UK stick to it?

Another reason why the theory of mask economics is facing scepticism in the UK is because of fear around Britain’s apparent reluctance to wear the masks. In a survey that recorded the mask-wearing habits of six countries, including America, Britain, Italy, China, Japan and South Korea, it was found that even though Brits were just as likely as the other respondents to wash their hands and socially distance, they were only half as likely to wear a mask.

Britain’s reluctance to habitually cover their face in public is understood by the medical anthropologist Chris Lynteris to be partly explained by ‘a stigma around wearing a mask’ in the west. This mask shame is likely to stem from the fact that Britain and other western countries like the U.S have never had to deal with the impact of previous pandemics in recent history. Even though this shame can be unlearnt and new social norms can slowly take its place, it will likely take a concerted effort from our government to encourage the widespread societal acceptance of masks in public.

What else needs to be done?

While enforcing the use of face masks in public spaces can clearly pave the way for a faster and more effective economic recovery, their uses will only provide fruitful results if they are implemented in conjunction with other practices.

Maintain social distancing

Wearing a mask is fairly futile if you don’t also practise social distancing. Research has shown that six-foot it the optimal distance required to keep from people to ensure your own safety as well as the safety as those around you. However, even keeping a distance of three feet has been proven to be useful at dramatically lowering the risk of infection.

Thorough hand washing

You’re probably sick of hearing this one, but routine hand washing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Several studies have shown that when mask-wearing is practised in conjunction with thorough hand washing, it’s the most effective way to protect yourself and others around you against respiratory infections.

A focus on testing

As other countries such as South Korea and Taiwan have proved, making test kits readily available to the wider population is an incredibly effective way to prevent the spread of the virus as well as being beneficial in pinpointing patterns and trends of transmission. Regular testing is beneficial because it leads to earlier detection, and this gives healthcare practitioners the ability to quickly treat those who become infected before they put more people at risk.

The research and advice from public health experts all point towards the mandatory wearing of masks in public spaces being a sensible and safe way to work at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. However, only time will tell if enforced mask-wearing will be effective enough to reduce the spread of the virus enough to afford businesses the opportunity to stay open and recover from the financial damage of Covid-19. A clear way to increase its chances of success, however, is to combine regular mask-wearing with other public safety measures such as thorough hand washing, social distancing, and regular testing.