Mutuality vs freedom: competing moral panics in the UK debate over the wearing of masks during the pandemic

Collins, Jeremy (2023) Mutuality vs freedom: competing moral panics in the UK debate over the wearing of masks during the pandemic. In: Folk Devils and Moral Panics in the COVID-19 Pandemic. The COVID-19 Pandemic Series . Routledge, Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. ISBN 9781032591490 (In Press)


The emergence of Covid-19 led to different kinds of social restrictions being imposed in different parts of the world at different times. In the UK, the lockdown of March 2020 was not initially accompanied by demands for the public (as opposed to health care professionals) to wear masks, but following pressure from some expert groups such as the British Medical Association (Patterson, 2020) masks were mandated in shops and supermarkets on 24 July 2020 (GOV.UK, 2020) . The rules were relaxed in July 2021, but reinstated on 30 Nov 2021 in response to the emerging omicron variant (Reuters, 2021). As part of the lifting of ‘Plan B’ restrictions, the general mask mandate was removed on 27 January 2022, with a final (somewhat reluctant) removal of the mask mandate on London Transport on 24 February 2022 (Transport for London, 2022).
Throughout these changes of policy, a debate developed in which mask-wearing became, in part at least, linked to issues of moral and social responsibility. It has been argued that the face mask “is at once such a shared cultural symbol and yet so physically intimate [which] allows its wearer to channel, materialise and signal co-operation, fear, anger or dissent.” (Barratt, 2020). In this chapter, this debate will be analysed as an illustration of the possibility of competing moral panics, in which the language choices made in public discourse (largely in samples of newspaper articles) shape the issue of the moral risk of (not) wearing a mask during the pandemic.

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