This paper offers a critique of UK government policy based on mode of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (which in turn followed misleading advice from the World Health Organisation) through the lens of policymaking as narrative. Two flawed narratives—“Covid is droplet- not airborne-spread” and “Covid is situationally airborne” (that is, airborne transmission is unusual but may occur during aerosol-generating medical procedures and severe indoor crowding)—quickly became dominant despite no evidence to support them. Two important counter-narratives—“Covid is unequivocally airborne” and “Everyone generates aerosols; everyone is vulnerable”— were sidelined despite strong evidence to support them. Tragic consequences of the flawed policy narrative unfolded as social dramas. For example, droplet precautions became ritualised; care home residents died in their thousands; public masking became a libertarian lightning rod; and healthcare settings became occupational health battlegrounds. In a discussion, we call for bold action to ensure that the science of SARS-CoV-2 transmission is freed from the shackles of historical errors, scientific vested interests, ideological manipulation and policy satisficing.
In most countries worldwide, face coverings used by the public are recommended as source control during the COVID-19 pandemic. The dominant narrative has viewed face coverings as a medical intervention and evaluated their effectiveness from an infection control perspective. Face coverings are also a social practice, so policy implementation to promote uptake should consider sociocultural narratives
This paper responds to one by Graham Martin and colleagues, who offered a critique of my previous publications on masks for the lay public in the Covid-19 pandemic. I address their charges that my co-authors and I had misapplied the precautionary principle; drawn conclusions that were not supported by empirical research; and failed to take account of potential harms. But before that, I remind Martin et al that the evidence on mask wearing goes beyond the contested trials and observational studies they place centre stage. I set out some key findings from basic science, epidemiology, mathematical modelling, case studies and natural experiments, and use this rich and diverse body of evidence as the backdrop for my rebuttal of their narrowly-framed objections. I challenge my critics’ apparent assumption that a particular kind of systematic review should be valorised over narrative and real-world evidence, since stories are crucial to both our scientific understanding and our moral imagination. I conclude by thanking my academic adversaries for the intellectual sparring match, but exhort them to remember our professional accountability to a society in crisis. It is time to lay straw men to rest and engage, scientifically and morally, with the dreadful tragedy that is unfolding across the world.