ON 1 JUNE, NHS England quietly changed its mask guidance for healthcare settings to end the so-called ‘requirement’ for staff, patients and visitors to wear face coverings in most wards and departments. This sounds welcome enough – until you realise the new guidance largely passes the buck down to local hospitals and GP surgeries, where we are seeing masking policies continue – based on the whims of local staff – causing enormous problems for patients.
It’s worth quickly reminding ourselves of the actual legal standing of the measures. For some months – in England at least – as clearly stated in the Government’s COVID-19: Infection prevention and control’ (IPC) webpages, statements about mask wearing were nothing more than ‘guidance’ and ‘recommendations’. Not law, and not a requirement. In this period, the belief that masks had to be worn by everyone setting foot in an English hospital or GP surgery seems to have arisen from what appears to be deliberately vague language in the guidance, combined with overzealous policing by some healthcare staff.
But the problem isn’t just that masks are ineffective: in fact, as laid out in detail by our Smile Free campaign against forced masking in our open letter to the NHS Chief Executives, there are significant negative consequences of masking, particularly in healthcare, and first person accounts bring these to life.
Many supporters who contacted us did so with retellings of encounters with medical officialdom that, because of the necessity for masks to be worn, simply failed to achieve the important goal of a functional, synchronous, bilateral flow of dialogue. We’ve heard of elderly patients suffering from dementia, heightened hearing difficulties or aphasia who have struggled mightily to understand what is being asked of or told to them.
One person noted that, “It has been incredibly difficult to understand staff wearing masks, and almost impossible for my Dad. This is incredibly frustrating and stressful for both my parents unnecessarily, especially given the already difficult communication issues.”
Multiple others told us how important it is for them to be able to see what the other person is saying, one sharing a consultation with her GP made considerably harder by the demand that she wear a mask because “I can usually gauge what’s being said by putting the mouth movements to the sound.”
This is serious, because impeding communication in healthcare settings can be fatal. A coroner recently found that an epileptic patient at Watford General Hospital actually died when a junior NHS doctor misheard ’15mg’ as ’50mg’ before giving the patient a fatal dose of an anti-seizure drug, due to Covid face masking policies.
One aspect of mask enforcement recorded by supporters that has shocked us is the attitude of many medical staff towards those who cannot wear a mask. We’ve read of many such cases: from the woman who, their GP having refused to remove their own mask to facilitate communication, was later the subject of a complaint that she had been ‘confrontational’; to the person who saw a man, in the throes of an anxiety attack because of the insistence he wear a mask, leave the A&E room.
Again, a surprising number of people have shared their stories of medical staff being ignorant of the 2010 Equalities Act. One supporter recounted their experience of having the technician administering her mammogram demand ‘in a very aggressive manner’ to know the nature of her medical exemption. Another described seeing someone ‘surrounded by security and nursing staff demanding to know the reason for his claimed exemption’. As one writer stated, quite accurately, “I reflected afterwards that this man’s dignity and confidentiality had been breached quite blatantly in front of all in the waiting room, and this ought to be brought to the attention of hospital authorities as completely inappropriate and unprofessional, also contrary to the Equality Act 2010.”
Too often a general fear of the SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to have caused a reduction in the level of care afforded to the public and, in some cases, this has been exacerbated by the demands that masks be worn. One maskless supporter recounted a visit to her doctor who treated her “like a leper, never once touching or examining me for a diagnosis. She said I had a bacterial infection and prescribed antibiotics” only to end up a couple of days later being “rushed to A&E by my husband’ where she was “diagnosed with facial shingles”.
There have been many examples of people finding their unwillingness to wear a mask translate into delayed diagnosis or action, for example the woman taken to A&E with “breathing difficulties” – which turned out to be pneumonia – but who was denied entry while her husband argued about the need for a mask to be worn. But an issue which has been denied airtime by the mainstream media in their desire to promote the useless masks is the effect that having to wear a mask has had on those who have been deterred from attending for regular check-ups and diagnostic tests. One woman told us about her reluctance to go for a routine cancer screening “due to my fear of having to undergo an intimate and uncomfortable procedure with my mouth covered”, adding that “I would never have been this afraid of a routine smear test had I not been required to take it masked.”
All of which brings us to the last, and potentially most significant, area of concern experienced by our supporters; that is the growing sense that there is a disconnect between those looking for medical assistance and those in a position to give it. Many people who have sent their personal stories to us have noted their own frustrations and stresses because of ‘the revolting masks’, as one comment had it. And many have told us how ‘upsetting’ they have found their experiences of trying to access health services as a maskless patient, one writer in particular standing out as she described the feelings she experienced in struggling to see her 94-year-old father as he passed to the end of his life in a local hospice: “As masks do nothing to protect against viruses anyway, it seems unreasonably cruel to demand that dying people cannot see their relatives faces or understand their speech.”
“I would like to see the politicians making these decisions based on barely any evidence that masks work to visit these wards and observe the pain and suffering the mask requirement is adding.”
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Paul Stevens is part of the Smile Free campaign to end forced masking in the UK which is currently inviting signatures to its open letter to the NHS Chief Executives to remove the mask requirement from healthcare settings throughout the UK.
Photo by Ermolaev Alexandr from Adobe Stock