Mask wearing in England is back. Face coverings will be mandatory in shops and on public transport from Tuesday, to guard against the new Omicron Covid variant.

Now tens of thousands of luckless conductors, corner shop owners and supermarket door staff must challenge maskless customers from tomorrow (Tuesday) and persuade fellow countrymen and women to comply. Good luck with that.

It’s not that the English public is peculiarly foolish or stroppy – though they’ll get the blame if mask-wearing is widely rejected. What voters have needed from their political leaders, throughout the pandemic, is responsibility, clarity, far-sightedness, and public health messages personified by the Prime Minister’s own personal example.

Instead, evasion and rule-breaking has been the rule in England and on masks, a cavalier disregard for their use has been Boris Johnson’s only consistent Covid default.

It’s too late now to make a grudging volte-face stick, even if the Tory leader felt inclined to change his behaviour and there’s no sign he does.

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There was outrage when he sat maskless beside the 95-year-old David Attenborough at COP26. Outrage when he walked maskless through the wards of a hospital, dodging fallout from the Owen Paterson affair, especially when it emerged that he’d ignored three mask-up requests that day.

There should have been outrage when he walked mask-free to the podium on Friday to announce the return of masks in England and of PCR tests for incoming visitors across the UK. But the English media is so accustomed to the spectacle of Boris Johnson ignoring his own Covid advice that this maskless mask announcement prompted only the standard response. Raised eyebrows, rolled eyes, wee smile – what is he like?

I’ll tell you what he’s like – a political leader who must appear to be beyond the rules, even if that erodes all public faith in his government’s health messages. Indeed, so embarrassed was Johnson to interfere with the sacred right to do as you please, it wasn’t immediately clear at his press conference that the mask will be back.

But it is. Mostly. Not when moving around hospitality venues (unlike Scotland). Only for three weeks pending a review (unlike Scotland). Not as part of a new work-from-home default (unlike Scotland). And not applicable to the leader who announced them (unlike Scotland). Within hours of his hastily convened Downing Street press conference, Boris was pictured without a face covering on a busy train, again.

For a masterclass in sabotaging your own public health message, no-one can hold a candle to Boris Johnson. And no-one can blame the English public if they sense a very different reality lurks behind the Prime Minister’s half-hearted air of Covid ‘concern.’

Boris Johnson is bored. Bored with masks. Bored with public health. Bored with restrictions. Bored with the details and Cobra meetings that will now inevitably follow and bored rigid by the prospect of SAGE briefings with those relentlessly serious chappies who won’t look on the bright side. Bored with journalists asking about Christmas, bored with Christmas (and awkward family get-togethers). Actually, just bored.

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None of this is what Boris signed up for. I’m sure he quite likes theatrical despatch box moments during Prime Minister’s Questions. But the rest?

The Prime Minister radiates boredom when dealing with the nuts and bolts of governance. Hence his proclivity for big pointless announcements like the bridge linking Scotland and Ireland or the House of Lords moving to York (whatever happened to that one?). Hence also those arresting moments of sheer irrelevance in speeches – Peppa the Pig springs to mind unbidden. Boris Johnson is bored by governance and assumes everyone else feels the same.

Yet the public expects a Prime Minister to be immersed in low-key but vitally important bits of briefing, consultation and communication, especially during a pandemic.

Ironically, it would be quite acceptable for Boris to break two of the three rules in Radio 4’s long-running Just a Minute quiz right now. Deviation is always a dangerous temptation too far for someone like Boris Johnson. But hesitation in the face of uncertainty and repetition of basic health messages are both perfectly acceptable. The snag is, they aren’t his style.

So, the English public gets strong-man statements, categorical assurances and plans based on unbending, unrealistic and undeliverable certainty. Even though public trust and compliance then weaken every time the coronavirus forces a petulant ‘u-turn’ from Downing Street.

Really masks are like insurance policies. They work as long as everyone is insured and not just when icy weather appears. Motorists get insured without exception or much argument, all year round. The rules don’t vary and clarity boosts compliance.

Whether the Tory leader likes it or not, our new normal is much the same. The threat posed by Covid does ebb and flow, but generally remains intact. That’s why the Scottish First Minister hasn’t substantially varied her government’s heath advice or her own mask-wearing habits. She models enthusiastic compliance as surely as Boris models sullen non-compliance.

And that matters. Voters grow like political leaders as surely as dogs resemble their owners (and vice versa). Compliance is a habit, built on constancy, explanation and mutual respect between voters and government. It’s not a series of individual responses to tablets of stone dropping randomly from on high. In short, chopping and changing at rules weakens compliance.

Already the mask-sceptics are at work. According to The Spectator’s Andrew Lilico "It is not legitimate to restrict our liberties ‘just in case’. There needs to be certainty or near-certainty of disaster (as there was in March 2020) before it is legitimate to blight everyone’s lives. ‘Just in case’ is not good enough."

Therein lies madness.

By the time any "real Omicron emergency" is confirmed, real complacency will be at full tilt, bolstered by real resistance to any restriction.

As Nicola Sturgeon told Andrew Marr on Sunday, "we’ve all got agency against this virus". As he prepares to copy Scotland’s common-sense restrictions, Boris Johnson might do well to embrace the enlightened mask-wearing attitude of our First Minister too.

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