Will you make staff wear masks?

Freedom Day has a ring to it, in a Daily Mail front page kind of way, and it’s easy to see why everyone’s looking forward to it so much. No one likes being told what to do, particularly if it’s burdensome – and 16 months of mask-wearing and maintaining frankly unnatural degrees of personal space certainly counts as burdensome.

Indeed, for some businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector, the removal of the last social distancing restrictions is essential to their ability to turn a desperately-needed profit.

people in office taking off masks

But July 19 will hardly mark the end of the pandemic in the UK – cases are high and spiralling, despite vaccinations, and many people still feel vulnerable. This leaves leaders with a quandary: should you continue to ask staff or customers to wear masks and practise social distancing, even though it’s no longer a legal requirement?

The case for enforcing continued distancing measures is simple. Ethically, we have a social responsibility to protect staff, customers and society, in this case by restraining the spread of Covid, which is still a deadly disease. Commercially, those same staff and customers may feel much more comfortable knowing that other people in their vicinity are masked and distant.

The case against is equally straightforward: it’s just not up to you to tell people what level of risk they should take for themselves or for others. We don’t live in the 19th century, where paternalistic mill owners could dictate the finer details of their workers’ lives; we live in an age, hopefully, where you respect people’s freedom of conscience, even if you disagree. Equally, for every customer who’s reticent about sitting next to an unmasked stranger, there’s another who’s utterly fed up of being forced to wear one.

It’s your business, so it’s your call, ultimately. Sitting on the fence isn’t an option – either you issue guidance of some form or you don’t – and much may depend on the sentiments of your employees and your customers, which may vary from sector to sector. Whatever you choose will probably upset someone, particularly as hawkish and dovish approaches to public health have been increasingly politicised.

My own view is that vaccinations have given society sufficient protection that we can live with this virus – indeed, there is no other option than to live with it, as it’s not going to go away – and we can’t wear masks for the rest of our lives.

Public health experts can debate whether it would have been wiser to wait a month or so longer so more people could get their second jabs, but there comes a point where forcing people to keep apart and cover their faces arguably causes more social harm than good.

In that context, the wearing of masks becomes a matter of personal conscience, like religious freedom, and I don’t believe being a CEO gives me the right to interfere with that. What we can do is suggest that people be considerate, and live up to that standard ourselves. Freedom comes with such responsibilities, something we’d all do well not to forget.