Despite the worsening pandemic, the mask is optional on the streets of the United Kingdom

First modification: 12/01/2021 – 18:58Last modification: 12/01/2021 – 18:57

London (AFP)

At Borough Market stalls in central London, customers compare cheeses without removing their masks. An unusual scene in the United Kingdom, where its use remains optional abroad despite the worsening of the pandemic.

Country worst hit in Europe by the pandemic, with 82,000 confirmed deaths, the United Kingdom has been facing since December a variant of the coronavirus considered up to 70% more contagious.

But few people wear a mask on the street and some are even reluctant to put it on on public transport or in stores, where it has been mandatory for months.

However, the Borough Market, an open air market much appreciated by tourists and Londoners, imposed the use of face masks from Monday, becoming the first public place to do so thanks to specific market regulations dating from before the era Victorian (1837-1901).

Both sellers and customers must cover their nose and mouth under penalty of a fine of 50 pounds ($ 68, 56 euros).

“We want to make sure our market remains open and safe,” Kate Howell, director of development, tells AFP, lamenting “the unclear messages from the government.”

The customers, few in these times of confinement, who circulate between the stalls selling venison, seafood or cakes, comply with the rule.

Although he doubts the effectiveness of the mask, Patrick, in his 50s, who makes his purchase in a cheese factory, considers that “it is very important that our market survive because there are products that cannot be bought in a supermarket.”

– Reassure customers –

Graham Teale, owner of The Turkish Deli shop, has been wearing the mask since February and hopes its widespread use will reassure olive and hummus lovers who flock to his stall located in a room under the arches of the train viaduct.

“Around Christmas, there were quite a few groups of people eating and drinking alcohol in the street. Many of our clients did not feel comfortable and did not want to come,” he explains.

The Boris Johnson government is not in favor of generalizing the use of outdoor masks, as has been done in Spain, Italy and many cities in France.

However, Chris Whitty, England’s medical director, acknowledged on the BBC that there is a “risk” of transmission of the virus when people queue outside or crowd around a market stall. “In this situation, it would be logical to think about putting on a mask,” he said.

But the official slogan continues to be to limit interactions and, after having prioritized pedagogy not always with results, to apply more strictly the norms already in force.

Several supermarket chains have warned that they will deny entry to customers who do not cover their mouth and nose, except for exemption for medical reasons.

“A small minority of people do not respect the rules and that costs lives,” Kit Malthouse, Secretary of State for Public Safety, warned Tuesday, warning that the government is considering stricter measures.

Meanwhile, British scientists are divided on the usefulness of face masks outdoors.

“The risk of transmission outdoors is much lower than indoors,” argues Paul Hunter, a professor at the Norwich School of Medicine. The masks “do not replace a good distance” between people and “are ineffective if they get wet”, especially when it rains, he stresses.

But Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester, believes masks have a role to play, especially in winter when “colder air with less sunlight helps this coronavirus survive in aerosols,” those clouds of viral particles. .

And he compares the aerosols with cigarette smoke: “If you are in the queue of the bus and someone is smoking, even if you are more than two meters away, if you are in the path of the smoke you can still smell it,” he says, recommending using masks in crowded places even outdoors.

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