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Mask-wearing in Ireland is slipping, but compliance will likely increase as Delta rises

Mask-wearing in Ireland hit its lowest level in one year last month.

AS THE UK moves to end mandatory mask-wearing, will there be a knock-on effect in Ireland, or will the population double-down on basic public health measures as we navigate a fourth wave of infection?

Almost 60% of adults in Ireland are now fully vaccinated. A reduction in the level of personal anxiety and caution is therefore to be expected in the population as people feel more protected against Covid-19 and as restrictions ease. 

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan remarked on 30 April – as Ireland emerged out of its third wave and as more and more people were vaccinated – that it was the “right time for us to move on” but cautioned that it was not the end of the pandemic and urged people to continue basic measures like distancing, mask-wearing and hand hygiene. 

In Ireland, fully-vaccinated people are now allowed meet a small number of people indoors without wearing masks. This week EU Travel Certificates were issued to this cohort, although the official advice remains against non-essential travel. 

As fears over the more-transmissible Delta variant increase, however, public health has warned that a large section of the population remains unprotected – and that people with two doses are not entirely immune to contracting Covid-19.

Meanwhile, the UK on Monday will end mandatory mask-wearing amid alarm bells from experts who have warned it is too soon to end practices we are all so accustomed to.  

As we navigate the start of a fourth wave of infection, has our behaviour changed in recent months, and what does the most recent research tell us?

Screenshot 2021-07-14 14.07.23 - Display 2 Source: ESRI

Deirdre Robertson, a senior researcher at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), has noticed a decrease in people’s caution in recent weeks, although broadly levels remain high. 

The ESRI carries out a survey of 1,000 adults across Ireland every week to gauge social activity and behaviour. It includes asking people questions like what locations they visited and where they had been the previous day. 

Robertson uses what is known as a ‘Caution Variable’ – the probability that a person will be highly cautious or not when leaving their home regarding social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand hygiene. 

There are four categories of people in the ESRI research – people who say they are always cautious, people who say they are regularly cautious, people who consider themselves  sometimes cautious and people who say they are rarely or never cautious. 

Data collected between 14 June and 22 June by Robertson and her team shows that there has been a decline in that first group – people who are considered to be the most cautious. 

In April, about 50% of people surveyed were considered “highly cautious”, according to the ESRI, but this decreased to 41% in June. 

“That’s still by far the biggest group,” says Robertson. “We still have over 40% of people who are often or always cautious and then about 20% of people who are regularly cautious.

“Overall [compliance] is still quite high,” she said. 

The ESRI research chimes with weekly surveys carried out by the Department of Health and Amárach. 

The surveys show that last August, 89% of 1,900 people surveyed said they wore a face mask in public places. 

This figure rose to 94% in late January when cases erupted post-Christmas, but declined to 86% in June, the lowest level in a year.

Figures released by An Garda Síochána this week show that a total of 432 fines for non-compliance with mask-wearing have been issued since December 2020 when these fines came into place. 

The highest number of €80 fines (118) were issued in March this year with just 18 fines issued in June. 

Screenshot 2021-07-14 14.07.35 - Display 2 Source: Department of Health

Compliance with Public Health measures like mask-wearing remains a challenge for workers in certain industries, said Duncan Graham, CEO of Retail Excellence Ireland. 

“The guidance has not changed,” he said. “Until very recently compliance has been very high, but there was evidence during lockdowns of non-compliance with people who refused to wear a mask, or wanted to make a statement. 

“Some retailers are reporting that it is becoming more difficult to maintain protocols and that is a reality of people being vaccinated and standards slipping a bit,” said Graham.

He said a challenge for employers and businesses since restrictions were eased in May is ensuring new staff are trained in Covid-19 protocols.

More locations 

According to the most recent ESRI survey, adults in Ireland are visiting more locations outside of their household but this rise remains slow. 

The average number of close contacts is also increasing, but the biggest rise is among vaccinated people with at least one dose. 

Robertson said people move between ‘Caution Variable’ categories, a sign perhaps that as people are vaccinated they feel safer in their activities, and perhaps don’t follow as strictly measures like distancing and mask-wearing. 

Meanwhile, ESRI data shows that the level of worry in the Irish population has been slowly decreasing since March. “It’s not as fast as you might expect,” said Robertson. 

“Most people are very cautious, and even more cautious than you might expect,” she said, adding that Ireland is at an advantage because for 18 months we have often been able to see other countries experience waves of infection and restrictions before us. 

That could be important over the coming weeks as Ireland closely watches the UK. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced this week that mandatory face mask-wearing in England would end next Monday even as the UK faces a spike in infection and a rise in hospital cases due to the Delta variant. 

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His Transport Minister Grant Shapps subsequently rejected this rollback and supported a decision to make masks compulsory on the London Underground after London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he was “forced” to intervene to ensure continued compliance on public transport. 

In the United States, international media reports that in places like Los Angeles and St Louis, authorities are begging people resume mask-wearing in public. 

Mask-wearing is considered another tool in preventing the spread of Covid-19 by significantly reducing the amount respiratory viruses emit droplets and aerosols. 

There is evidence to suggest that as mask-wearing is most effective as a “source control” because they can prevent larger expelled droplets from evaporating into smaller droplets that can travel farther, thus infecting another person. 

Speaking to The Journal, Professor of Experimental Immunology, School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin Kingston Mills said that – at least anecdotally -  compliance with mask-wearing in Ireland remains high. 

However, there is a risk that some people in Ireland who have been vaccinated may stop wearing masks, he said. 

“The irony is that a mask is to protect everyone else. The most-effective measure in mask-wearing is someone who is infected not spreading [Covid-19] to others,” said Mills. 

The ESRI’s Robertson said that typically people in Ireland worry most about the health of their friends and family. “If cases go up and we see increased hospitalisations, it’s not that worry will continue to go down, I suspect levels of worry will go up.

“I think people are still quite highly-aware of this virus.”

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