SAGE expert calls for ‘clear, coherent’ messaging from government over face masks

PUBLISHED: 09:20 13 July 2020 | UPDATED: 09:20 13 July 2020

Boris Johnson wears a mask as he poses for a Twitter picture. Photograph: Twitter.

Boris Johnson wears a mask as he poses for a Twitter picture. Photograph: Twitter.

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A behavioural expert who sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) committee has called for ‘clear, coherent and consistent’ messaging on face coverings after Michael Gove appeared to contradict the prime minister.

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On Friday Boris Johnson said that the government “needs to be stricter in insisting people wear face coverings in confined spaces”.

But over the weekend Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said that face coverings should not be made mandatory in shops but should be worn out of courtesy and consideration for others.

Gove told the BBC: “I would encourage people to wear face masks when they are inside, in an environment where they are likely to be mixing with others and where the ventilation may not be as good as it might.

“I think that it is basic good manners, courtesy and consideration, to wear a face mask if you are, for example, in a shop. I trust people’s good sense.”


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Behavioural expert Professor Susan Michie said any legislation needed to be accompanied with information campaigns on why and how to follow the rules if people are to adhere to them.

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She said this had not been seen with the UK government’s approach to face coverings in England, adding that it was “signalling importance rather than punishment”.

“The government is signalling we’re lifting all these things, and that suggests that things aren’t very risky any more,” she told the PA news agency.

“So the advantage of legislation is saying this is really risky, this is really important but it should be accompanied by clear, coherent, consistent messaging and a good public information campaign.”

The UK government’s approach has been compared to Scotland’s after a law making face coverings in stores mandatory for most people came into effect on Friday.

Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, told PA there had been clearer messaging on face coverings in Scotland, including from the first minister.

But she added: “You can change the social norms, you can change the message and lead by example but the big shift is by telling people you have to do it.”

Addressing Gove’s comments, Prof Bauld said: “Leadership and showing that example is key but trying to encourage people to do it as good manners is not really sufficient.

“You don’t have to do that much on enforcement, there are other measures in public health that we’ve had in the past where enforcement can be minimal but if people are told to do it and that there will be an enforcement response if something goes wrong, most people will do it, the smoking ban is the best example of that.”

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