Would Churchill have worn a face mask?

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

The problem with face masks is cutting an opening of the right size to accommodate a cigarette, without the hole compromising the safety of the mask itself. A tiresome procedure, especially for someone like me who is not terribly dexterous. I assume that very soon we will all be enjoined to wear face masks everywhere we go. At the outset these contrivances were derided a little for two reasons; first they actually offered no protection to the user, only to people who came into contact with the user, and second they seemed to be not a terribly British way of going about things. Even now I would be embarrassed to wear a face mask — there is something smug and averse about the people who use them when nipping out to the shops. But better smug and averse than dead, I suppose.

I have tried to order some masks online, but such is the demand that you can get only those really flimsy ones which would immediately yield under the bombardment from a prodigious gobbet of phlegm. A friend of mine who works as a nurse at a clinic in Teesside reported treating a patient who had a woman’s sanitary napkin wrapped around her mouth and nose, affixed by string to her ears. That’s a possibility — except that people might assume I was a right-on woke liberal doing his bit to demystify the female menstrual cycle. I think I would rather drown in my own lung juice in a camp bed in one of those empty Nightingale hospitals than have anyone believe that of me.

There is another possibility — open to me, but more than likely not to you. I still have a number of friends who were once energetic members of Millwall’s hooligan contingent back in the 1970s and early 1980s. They were known as ‘Treatment’, on account of the fact that they wore authentic medical face masks when they were kicking in the heads of opposing supporters. My club has attracted its fair share of bad press over the years but I think it’s time some recognition was given to this pioneeringly hygienic approach to football-related violence. The oppos may have been maimed for life, but at least they were kept germ-free. Perhaps some of the lads still have a mask or two up in the attic along with the Stanley knives, and may be prepared to sell me a couple. But there is still something wrong in essence with these masks. Can you imagine Winston Churchill in a face mask, or Charles Moore?

Despite what the government is saying at the moment, I suspect lockdown will be lifted, or at least eased, fairly soon. We are subjected to graphs every day, detailing infection rates and death rates and so on, but the only important graph is one with two lines on it: the first charting our overwhelming wish to protect the vulnerable, the second charting our fervent desire not to be skint. When these two lines intersect it will be a case of ‘screw the elderly, let’s make some money again’. By which time the government may already have become fait accompli in a partial lifting of restrictions.

This is only anecdotal evidence, but two weeks ago the usually busy trunk road a mile or so from my home was completely silent. It was like living in the early 1960s, pre—Beatles and drugs. For some days now, though, it has been back to normal — the volume of traffic has increased ten- or twelvefold. They can’t all be ‘key workers’ or people doing their essential once-a-week shop at Morrisons. Meanwhile the cyclists are out in force. It’s like a perpetual Tour de France for ninnies round my way. Groups of six to eight of them, haring down the lanes. Perhaps they were exempted from the social-distancing regulations on account of the important contribution they are all making to saving the world. We should set aside five minutes every Thursday evening to thank the cyclists for this.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that statistics from China suggested that somehow cigarettes might have some kind of insulatory effect against this wretched virus, given that virtually none of those admitted to hospital in Wuhan were smokers even though an estimated 50 per cent of the male population smoke. This suggestion has since been echoed by a couple of French doctors and, er, the artist David Hockney. But now more evidence emerges in a much wider survey from the United States.

In its bulletin ‘Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report’, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the backgrounds of 122,653 American Covid-19 patients, primarily to highlight underlying medical issues which might worsen the effects of the virus. Smoking was one of these — and indeed, as you might imagine, the report suggested that for smokers the outcome of contracting the virus tended, by a small percentage, to be more serious than for non-smokers. However, what the researchers chose not to highlight, but which was nonetheless present in the figures, was that smokers comprised just 1.3 per cent of those who had presented with the virus, when the approximate proportion of the US population who smoke is 14 per cent. Age differences between smokers and non-smokers would make this disparity all the more stark.

So far, every single investigation I have seen shows that smokers comprise a tiny percentage of those suffering from Covid-19 but that when they do contract the disease, the outcome tends to be worse. So the latest advice from those monomaniacs at Action on Smoking and Health would seem to be both counter-productive and even dangerous. They are advising smokers to give up now, right this minute. Better advice would be to keep smoking, and maybe up your intake a bit, and then give up once the Covid virus is history.

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