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Yes, it is beyond time to end the masking of children

It is easily forgotten now, but the Government’s decision to end almost all covid restrictions almost a month ago was met with predictions of disaster, in some quarters. Including from people who became household names as experts, during the pandemic. Those fears, a month on, have turned out to be nonsense.

Now, the Government is finally considering the last step: Getting rid of masks. It is a step that is long overdue.

For the vast majority of people in Ireland, the pandemic is over as a matter of everyday life. Even the most vocal critics of Government policy – those who objected to vaccine passports – have seen them abolished for domestic use. Weddings, funerals, and family events are taking place every day.

From the beginning of the pandemic, facemasks have been a hot button culture war issue more than they have been a medical device: There were those who ostentatiously refused to wear them, denying their effectiveness. As the pandemic hit its peaks, and cases soared despite restrictions, vaccines, and masks, their position became more persuasive. There were, and remain, those on the other side of that argument for whom masks appeared to become much more a symbol of their inherent virtue than they did a medical device. Even today, many of the arguments for facemasks are cultural, not medical: “It costs nothing to protect others”, and “I have no problem wearing one to make others feel more comfortable”.

But there is, and has always been, a cost to making children, especially young children, wear masks. At that age, we develop rapidly, learn social cues, learn how to read facial expressions, and so on. We go to school every day, which is not a pleasant experience for every child to begin with. It remains Government policy that children in classrooms should wear a mask for the whole of every schoolday.

A policy like that needs strong evidence that it is providing a real health benefit. That evidence simply does not exist.

There is not one study – not one – anywhere in the world which shows that facemask wearing by children in schools meaningfully reduces covid infection levels. There are some, from the USA, which show an ultra-marginal benefit, and others which show no benefit at all. But there is no study which can be pointed to which shows a significant fall in infection.

In fact, if there were any impact from the wearing of masks, then we would see it simply by looking at the difference in infection levels in children between Ireland – where masks remain mandatory in schools – and the UK, where masks are not used in schools. There is, in fact, no difference in infection levels beyond that explained by random variation.

This should not surprise anybody who knows the first thing about how children interact with each other, and their surroundings. Facemasks might be of benefit in a controlled setting, worn by the hygiene conscious, trained in how to use them. In schools, we have children who wear the same mask every day for a week, stuff it into their pockets at breaktimes, and interact with their peers with no mask on for large parts of the day.

That this policy has remained in place as long as it has, has almost nothing to do with the health of children, and almost everything to do with Government desiring to demonstrate that it remains cautious.

The time, objectively, has now come to do away with this. No section in society deserves to know normality more than children. After all, the rest of us have experienced it: Some children, by contrast, have never known a school without facemasks. Two years is a short time in an adult’s life. For any child up to about the age of eight, facemasks are almost all that they can remember. Restrictions are almost all that they can remember.

The Government should, by now, have learned its lesson about caution: Those voices who tried to shout down the re-opening in January have been, to date, proven completely wrong. They are the same voices, almost to a man, who will shout and roar about school safety.

In truth, there is no remaining public health justification for any measure at all. There cannot seriously be an intelligent person left, for example, who seriously believes that a tide of covid infections in Ireland is being held back by indoor mask wearing. It is objectively nonsensical to think that way.

The masks that we continue to wear remain not as a medical device, but as a reminder to ourselves that the boogeyman is still out there, and could yet return. They serve an entirely performative purpose.

The Government has previously said that it will reconsider these measures by the end of this month. There is, in truth, nothing left to consider. End masking now, and end it for children in schools, well, yesterday.

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