Rape victims are among those left in fear by the new rules
People who cannot wear face masks have, at last, been thrown a lifeline by the First Minister, Paul Givan. Yesterday he announced that enforcement of the new requirement to provide proof of exemption has been suspended.
But will that lifeline hold?
The renewed drive to enforce mask-wearing, even at the expense of those who aren’t able to do so without serious distress, has been building for weeks, and is unlikely to stop any time soon.
In December, Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Michael McBride told the BBC that it “upset” him when he saw people not wearing masks who “clearly don’t have an underlying health condition.”
He said: “What I say to them is, ‘Please respect me and wear your face covering. I respect you, I am wearing my face covering. Please show me respect’.”
There are many individuals with health conditions that are not outwardly visible, but which nonetheless mean they cannot bear to cover their faces.
This is Northern Ireland, after all: the trauma capital of the world.
This group of vulnerable, voiceless people includes those with severe autism and learning difficulties, and women who have been victims of rape and other forms of soul-shattering violence. They are already dealing with enormous life challenges, the scale of which most of us cannot imagine.
But things were about to get even worse for them.
Just before Christmas, the Northern Ireland Executive announced that the exemption of wearing a face covering “where it causes extreme distress” was to be removed, and “the onus of proving an exemption on medical grounds will be on the individual”.
The new regulations stated that the individual must be able to provide proof of exemption “to a relevant person, such as a police or enforcement officer”.
But many GPs are unwilling to write letters or certificates of exemption, with some citing Covid-related workload. It emerged that the General Medical Council (GMC) had actually advised GPs not to issue such documents.
This left many mentally-fragile individuals in a frightening limbo: medically unable to wear a mask, but unable to prove it, and thus defenceless against being fined.
The situation for rape victims was even more dire. They are often haunted by horrific memories of being forcibly silenced, which makes wearing anything over their mouth intolerable, and causes agonising flashbacks to the attack.
Since most rapes go unreported, these people may have no medical record of the terrible trauma they suffered. No means whatsoever of providing proof – yet their suffering is all too painfully real.
What shocked me deeply was the near-total silence with which this disturbing change to the law was received.
Where was the massive outcry from disability rights and rape support groups?
Where are those who help people with their mental health?
Where were the political parties that pride themselves on their human rights record, their care for victims and minority groups, their compassion for the oppressed?
Naomi Long, the Justice Minister and leader of the Alliance party, tried to deflect criticism by saying she had asked about the potential impact on those with autism or panic attacks.
“I was assured that it would be possible for anyone who received an FPN [fixed penalty notice] to challenge it if they had a relevant condition,” she said on Twitter.
So it’s okay for a severely autistic person to go through the fear, confusion and humiliation of being publicly confronted and reprimanded by a police officer, and to be given a fine for breaking the law, as long as they can subsequently challenge it?
In desperation, many sufferers and their families appealed to the Equality Commission. It released a limp statement saying it had written to the Department of Health, “reminding it of the importance of adhering to its equality duties.”
Other than that, there was virtually nothing.
It was left to an NI-based grassroots group called Citizen Journalists to take up the cause. Almost alone, it has been championing the plight of those who cannot wear face-coverings, calling the Executive to account for its actions and demanding answers.
This grim, myopic authoritarianism is what happens when one health problem, and the attempts to curb it, is elevated above all others.
Respect is demanded by advocates of face masks. But where is the respect for those who cannot comply?