As the world enters its third year of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, strategies to contain the virus continue to be explored, examined, and scrutinized. In some cases, clear answers remain stubbornly elusive.
New evidence out of the United Kingdom showed the research the government used to justify making masks mandatory in schools was "not conclusive.”
“The government's own study in the autumn did not provide proof of a statistically significant impact,” the BBC reported last week.
The evidence, recently made public by the UK Department for Education, shows the justification for the new mask rule relied on data collected during October 2021 when cases were surging because of the Delta variant. Researchers examined 123 UK schools who enforced mask mandates and compared them to 1,200 schools that did not, and the results were statistically insignificant.
Schools with mask mandates saw their average absence rate fall by 2.3 percent to 3 percent over three weeks, according to the study. Schools without masks mandates saw the absent rate fall by 1.7 percent to 3.6 percent.
“There is a level of statistical uncertainty around the result,” researchers admitted.
BBC: Government study finds schools mandating masks had no statistical benefit; "94% of school leaders and teachers saying [masks] made communication between teachers and pupils more difficult. Some 80% of pupils also said it made communication harder” https://t.co/jn9f0Anb8I— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) January 11, 2022
‘A Retrofit of Evidence to Suit a Policy’
The findings may be a surprise to many, but they dovetail with other recent research that calls into question the effectiveness of school mask mandate policies.
In May, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a large-scale study that analyzed some 90,000 Georgia elementary students in 169 schools from November 16 to December 11, 2020. That study also found no statistically significant difference in schools that required students to wear masks.
“The 21% lower incidence in schools that required mask use among students was not statistically significant compared with schools where mask use was optional,” the CDC said. "This finding might be attributed to higher effectiveness of masks among adults, who are at higher risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection but might also result from differences in mask-wearing behavior among students in schools with optional requirements."
As New York magazine writer David Zweig wrote, the CDC’s research “cast doubt on the impact of many of the most common mitigation measures in American schools.”
None of this is to say masks “don’t work,” are not effective, or should not be worn. It’s merely to say the research used to support the UK’s mask mandate, which was not even peer-reviewed, is not conclusive and doesn’t support the government’s case for a mandate.
“This is a retrofit of evidence to suit a policy that has been rushed out,” said Carl James Heneghan, a clinical epidemiologist and director of the University of Oxford's Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has published the "evidence" for pupils wearing face masks in schools.— talkRADIO (@talkRADIO) January 6, 2022
Professor of Evidence Based Medicine Carl Heneghan says the study is "not fit for purpose" and actually shows evidence for NOT wearing masks.@JuliaHB1 | @carlheneghan pic.twitter.com/OhqK0a9nUJ
‘Against What Is Stupid, Nonsensical, Erroneous’
Again, none of this is to say masks don’t work. Early in the pandemic, we at FEE pointed out there may be a case for voluntarily wearing a mask, especially if you are sick. And, as the BBC notes, the UK study remarked that “other studies have provided mixed results, but taken together suggest [school mask mandates] may help.”
The larger takeaway here is the government’s naked and gross incompetence. As Heneghan pointed out in his interview with Julia Hartley-Brewer, the government’s study acknowledges its mask policy could harm learning. Nevertheless, they pressed on with the policy and used an inconclusive study to support it.
“This study is not fit for purpose, that’s clear, and (it shouldn’t) be used to underpin a policy,” Heneghan stated flatly. “If [it is], we’re in a lot of trouble.”
Unfortunately, passing policies on such flimsy scientific evidence has been a consistent theme throughout this pandemic, he added.
“I think this has been a complete feature throughout this pandemic, is to keep intervening at speed and pace in authoritative reaction to media and the anxiety,” Heneghan said. “And then what happens is that after two or three weeks in everybody is rolling back that policy and bringing in another one.”
Indeed, throughout the pandemic, people around the world have been confronted with policies that often made no sense. Athletes were allowed to wrestle but not shake hands. Liquor stores were deemed essential businesses while the bar next door was shut down. Target and Walmart were packed with people even as the local hardware store and furniture store on the corner were forced to close. Laws were passed that prevented nursing homes from screening for COVID-19. The list goes on.
The nonsensical nature of the state’s reaction to the virus in some ways has been the pandemic’s most challenging aspect, at least for some of us. It has resulted, tragically, in numerous deaths, economic carnage, social unrest, and spasms of violence.
In his classic work Liberalism: The Classical Tradition, economist Ludwig von Mises explained the proper way to react to senselessness and stupidity.
“Against what is stupid, nonsensical, erroneous, and evil, [classical] liberalism fights with the weapons of the mind, and not with brute force and repression,” Mises wrote.
This is how the madness of the pandemic will eventually be defeated: with the weapons of the mind that expose studies so bad even the BBC takes notice.