That question is a bit like asking “what’s it like in the US?” the answer is entirely dependent on where you are in the country.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I came over to the UK. In the news the UK response was painted as “not great” but “better than the US”. However, just like putting Vermont in the same category as Arizona is an unfair comparison, so is putting England and Scotland (sorry Wales and Northern Ireland, I didn’t visit you so I am going to keep you out of this particular conversation). It has been heavily noted that relatively early on in the pandemic response Scotland diverged from the English response and was pretty successful at doing so. While Scotland has slowly worked on reopening it wasn’t long ago Scotland had a stay-local order where you were couldn’t go more than 5 miles from your house. Needless to say I expected at least the same level of response as in Vermont (where I’m from), if not a bit more stringent.
When I landed everything was as expected, everyone in the airport was wearing a mask, social distancing was encouraged and enforced. I did my two week quarantine (they do have an option to take a test to get out after 10 days) and then fairly soon after we set off on a staycation to see friends in England. While it was great to see friends it also let me see how different communities were handling coronavirus and the difference between how Scotland and England were handling things.
Our first stop down in England was in Blackpool to see a friend from one town over. Blackpool is this big holiday beachside vacation place and basically no one was wearing masks and I was, well, confused, annoyed, and nervous. My experience in Vermont was pretty much that everyone wore face masks basically everywhere and if you didn’t wear a mask in public you were an inconsiderate jerk. As we drove into town I’m looking out the window and none of these people are wearing masks, on a crowded boardwalk, in crowded restaurants. This can’t be an entire country of jerks, so what is it? Is it lack of regulation and/or education? Is it lower rates of the virus so different parts of the country can open up more? Is it cultural? Is it that testing is more readily available and free (although it’s getting better in VT)?
I assumed everyone would wear face masks like I had gotten used to. However, I think it comes down to regulations. In England you need to wear a face-mask in a huge number of situations, but a pub or restaurant isn’t one of them and outside it is only recommended in highly crowded areas. They rely heavily on social distancing and probably figure that once people are sitting down they would take the masks off anyways… but, the servers and staff didn’t have them on either. I was overall shocked by the number of staff without masks on. The ones behind plexiglass made more sense, but so many were interacting with huge numbers of people, and just going about their day like nothing was different. (For point of reference, we did not visit every town in England, and this experience is based on visiting: Fleetwood, Blackpool, Southampton, Bromsgrove, and Hull).
Now, they did do some other things well, albeit inconsistently. In England we found that nearly all shops would have it posted how many people could go in at a time to maintain proper social distancing and they had it marked out on the floor to encourage distancing. To go into the shops you needed to have a mask on. One small charity shop (second hand shop run by a charity organization) could only have 2 people in at a time and had someone at the door to enforce it. They had a staff member at the door and it was strictly enforced. Across the street the card store (with less square footage) could have 6 people in there, but had no one at the door and when I had wanted to go in, but didn’t as there were already 10 people in there. Now, there are obvious economic reasons for this – one is run by volunteers so the person standing at the door isn’t getting paid and the people working there don’t need to be as concerned with the bottom line – but, we’re looking at the inconsistencies in execution of the rules here. I will also add that nearly everywhere we went required the name and number for at least one person in the party for contact tracing purposes.
In Scotland (Glasgow and surrounding areas) I found that mask wearing in particular was more regular, consistent, and widely done. There aren’t any “one way” arrows at the grocery store, but there are at the smaller local shops. In nearly every store there are plenty of signs showing social distance spacing, and things are relatively open. Our local hardware store has a person at the door to make sure everyone has face masks on and sprays your hands with sanitizer. If you want a cart they sanitize it for you before they give it to you. And, when we went out to eat the restaurant staff had face masks on, although they weren’t all wearing them properly (cover your nose!). Shops didn’t have quite as many signs with acceptable numbers posted outside, but social distancing in the stores was well marked and easy to follow. One shopping centre we were in went to such lengths to have one way traffic going to the toilet it easily took us 5 minutes of walking to follow their maze. For those that ate at the food court they had staff taking names for contact tracing. Schools in Scotland are open for in-person education with some mask-wearing and social distance requirements (mostly for older students). I found that while walking around outside in Scotland in more crowded public areas people were actually likely to wear their masks, much more so than in England.
So, what is the COVID protocol like in the UK? Well, it feels less angry. Although, take a look at the picture above and it’s clear that they’ve had some issues with it. If a shop says you need to have a mask on in the UK it seems more so like people put the mask on, they follow the protocol, and then they go on with their day. In England it seems like people not wearing masks as much had more to do with it not being required by the government. The rules that were in place though, they followed. It doesn’t seem as if anyone over here is enjoying wearing masks, either, but they like that their kids are back in school in person. They also have a lot more in the way of government services (like the National Health Service, for example) that might make it easier for them to weather the storm. It seems to be a recognition of a little bit of inconvenience is okay to keep the numbers down enough that things can stay open. However, in this same regard, we heard about a party with 300 people at it clearly breaking all the rules, so there are definitely those rule breakers everywhere.
So, I did a little number comparison just to see how things are actually going. This comparison was based on numbers from August 30th (just the day I happened to write this): the UK had 1,715 cases reported and 1 death, Scotland had 123 of those cases and that one death, the US had 33,452 and 374 deaths, and Vermont had 11 of those cases and 0 deaths. Now, adjusted for population, in the whole of the UK one out of every 39,619 people, while in Scotland it was one out of every 44,341 people. In the whole of the US one out of every 9,904 people (there’s a reason that so many countries around the world don’t want to let US citizens in), and in Vermont just one out of every 56,726 people. (Yay, Vermont!) That might not sound like a lot but divide each of those numbers by 7 and that’s how many test positive each week. (In the US that means per week 1 out of every 1,414 people tests positive (remember that is largely due to a few states not managing it well)…. and this is 5+ months after the massive worldwide lockdown in March. Whomp.)
I would say Scotland is doing a good job of putting protocols in place that are pretty logical and that people are following. I still feel that in the US if I don’t see someone wearing a mask I would absolutely be more annoyed than if I saw someone in the UK not wearing a mask – simply based on numbers. And, while Vermont’s numbers are great, it’s because of so much mask wearing and social distancing and all of those things. If Vermont was an island I would feel differently, but as it is so easy for people to drive in from wherever that unfortunately, complacency would be devastating.
The big takeaway I want my readers to get from this is: This virus is a world-wide pandemic and every country in the world has had to figure out how to deal with it. People being told to wear masks isn’t specific to the US and this isn’t a government ploy to take away your liberties by way of a face mask. Citizens globally are being asked to do small things to help keep their communities safe and they have proven that it can work to keep the viruses spread at a minimum while getting society back to something somewhat normal.