LONDON — Britons, a people famously averse to seeming ruffled in times of distress, have taken slowly, if at all, to face masks during the coronavirus pandemic. Jim Williams says people in his home city, Newcastle, have even yelled at him and shot him angry looks when he wore one.
“Brits would rather be sick than embarrassed,” said Mr. Williams, 31, adding that his own family had turned down masks he bought for them. “We’re all very concerned with doing what other people are doing, and not wanting to be seen as being hysterical or ridiculous.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, rushing to reopen the hardest-hit country in Europe, weighed in on Tuesday on the side of embarrassment rather than sickness: He mandated that people wear masks inside shops and supermarkets in England, putting an end to months of equivocation on the matter.
Many scientists have found the dithering over face coverings mystifying and uneasily reminiscent of Britain’s delay in imposing a lockdown in March, part of a laissez-faire approach to the pandemic that has drawn intense criticism. In March, Mr. Johnson proclaimed Britain “a land of liberty” as he resisted following countries across Europe into lockdown. He, himself, later became seriously ill with the virus.
Britain now has the third-highest death toll in the world from Covid-19 — more than 50,000 by one official tally, and about 45,000 by another — behind only the United States and Brazil. Scientists say the Conservative government’s slow reactions have cost thousands of lives.
The reversal over face masks, set to take effect on July 24, pulls England into line with other European countries, like Germany, Italy and Spain — France plans to make them mandatory in enclosed spaces on Aug. 1 — and with Scotland, which is part of Britain but sets its own health policy. About half of U.S. states require masks in some public spaces, but the rules vary widely.
Britain has largely avoided the partisan debate over masks that has engulfed the United States. Instead, the government’s hesitation to mandate them has stemmed from internal debates among scientific advisers about the masks’ usefulness, and an apparent concern about ensuring that a resource in short supply was used where it was needed most.
But there were hints on Tuesday of an American-style divide on the matter.
In an almost empty House of Commons, the Conservative lawmaker Desmond Swayne railed on Tuesday against what he called “this monstrous imposition against myself and a number of outraged and reluctant constituents.”
“Nothing,” he said, “would make me less likely to go shopping than the thought of having to mask up.”
The police also bristled at being asked to enforce the new rules by levying fines of up to 100 pounds, or $125, with an officers’ union calling it “unrealistic and unfair” to expect them to patrol shop aisles.
For shops that had already told customers to wear masks, the requirement came as a relief. Just as the government’s slowness in imposing a lockdown in March had forced decisions about closures onto individual citizens and shopkeepers, so too had its reluctance to make a rule about face masks left people and businesses struggling to chart their own paths.
“Obviously, the pandemic isn’t over, and we only really wanted to open if we could keep everyone as safe as possible,” said Gayle Lazda, a bookseller at the London Review Bookshop in central London, which has required masks since it reopened this month. “Just like before the lockdown happened, we closed the shop because it seemed like the only sensible thing to do.”
Some scientists had pleaded for months with Mr. Johnson’s government to heed the growing evidence that masks could help stop the spread of the virus. But the government resisted, with England’s deputy chief medical officer saying on April 3 that “there is no evidence that general wearing of face masks by the public who are well affects the spread of the disease in our society.”
As recently as April 28, the government’s powerful Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies retroactively edited the minutes of a previous meeting to emphasize that “it would be unreasonable to claim a large benefit from wearing a mask.”
The advisers’ misgivings reflected what critics called an overly rigid approach to the science. The advisers emphasized a lack of evidence from randomized controlled trials, a bar that outside scientists said was impossibly high to meet, especially given the difficulties of measuring how one person’s mask might protect untold others.
“Some scientists feel that a very high level of certainty is required before advice is given for the public to undertake wearing a mask or other behaviors that would reduce disease transmission,” said Paul Edelstein, an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who helped write an influential report to British scientific advisers encouraging face coverings this month.
Masks have been mandatory on public transportation in England since mid-June, and the government had previously encouraged — but not required — masks in enclosed spaces. But the minutes of their meetings show that the government’s scientific advisers fretted about the possibility of masks making people more willing to leave home with symptoms, or to violate social distancing measures.
Trisha Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care at the University of Oxford, published an analysis on April 9 asking the government to consider how little there was to lose, and how much to gain, from encouraging the widespread use of masks. She said in an interview that the issue required considering a wider range of evidence than some scientists were trained to trust, like studies of super-spreader events on cruise ships.
“They’re creatures of their own upbringing,” she said of some of the government’s scientific advisers. “They have a lot of ingrained assumptions about what counts as rigor, and so then the science isn’t quite rigorous enough.”
Britain was far from alone in distrusting masks. Not knowing the extent of symptomless transmission, scientists in the United States and with the World Health Organization were also slow to encourage their use, noted Venki Ramakrishnan, the president of the Royal Society, a scientific body in Britain.
But Britons proved especially slow to voluntarily adopt masks, with only 21 percent of people saying they wore one in public, according to an analysis by YouGov published in June.
That put Britain far behind almost all of Europe, Asia and the Americas. Even in France, which has not yet required masks in shops, 79 percent of people wore them, YouGov said. So did 69 percent of Americans.
Beyond the discomfort, Britons complained in polls that they felt self-conscious, silly and embarrassed in masks. That reflected in part what Peter York, a prominent social commentator, described as a longstanding aversion — particularly among the upper classes — to seeming rattled in the face of disease or distress.
“There’s a class-based idea that anything too valetudinarian, too conspicuously hygienic, is middle-class,” he said, using a long word for being unduly anxious about one’s health. “It’s one of the sort of bravado things of the English upper class, that being madly hygienic is silly.”
For Ayla Hogg, 22, who has been long been wearing a mask around her village in Scotland, the introduction of a countrywide mandate in recent days was a comfort after months of disconcerting reactions to her mask.
“You have people purposely avoiding you, and you feel very self-conscious, like maybe I’m overreacting to this,” she said. “British people are incredibly awkward at the best of times. Going against the norm is very, very odd, and it does make you feel a bit like an outsider.”
Aurelien Breeden and Emma Bubola contributed reporting.