top of page

Masks, School Closures, Social Distancing, Lockdowns, and Mandates: The Wrong Choices.

The mask mandate for health care settings will be lifted in Oregon on April 3rd, more than two and a half years after the rule was imposed. Those of us who have treated over eight thousand patients with COVID in clinic and hospital settings are more than ready for this poorly conceived mandate to end.

A comprehensive Cochrane review study about masks to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses was published in 2023. This peer reviewed article included many randomly controlled studies. It did not find that masks prevent the spread of respiratory viruses.

I do agree with the conclusions of this Cochrane study, but some scientists may continue to argue about the statistical methods used and the study design. Still, it is the best study about masks that we have to date. It is far superior and more serious than the CDC’s published study observing two masked hairdressers who tested positive for COVID in Springfield, Missouri. CDC leadership elevated this study to endorse the use of masks for the public in 2020.

The link to the Cochrane mask research is below. It is consistent with decades of research prior to 2020 about masks and their inability to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses. What changed in 2020 was fear, a lack of critical thinking, the elevation of poorly designed studies, and hubris.

The quote below from the former director of the CDC testifying before a Senate subcommittee is an example of hubris.

“We have clear scientific evidence that they work, and they are our best defense,” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said. “I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.”

While many will still argue about mask efficacy, they are reluctant to discuss the medical precautionary principle to consider unintended harm with this intervention. Harm has been done.

It always seemed impractical and a form of abuse to enforce the masking of a 2-year-old child. Everyone should understand that masks have hurt the social, academic, speech development, and mental health of children. We have also created a generation of germaphobes who will view their fellow human beings as vectors of disease. There will be lasting consequences.

The flu is more deadly than COVD-19 for children. Yet, adults’ fears were prioritized above the best interests of children. Civilized societies do not do this.

Will we do it again?

Sweden’s public health policy was not fear based. They did not require masks or close their schools. Sweden has an older demographic, and many live in large, assisted living centers. Yet, their excess mortality (deaths above previous years’ average) was among the lowest in the world.

Measuring excess mortality eliminates confounding factors when considering particular public health interventions. If masks, lockdowns, social distancing, and other mandates worked to protect citizens, the excess mortality should reflect that. It did not.

Sweden’s excess mortality was 4.4% between 2020-2022 and is lower than other European countries. The excess mortality in the U.S. between 2020-2022 is difficult to pin down, but a recent study suggests it is at least 15-20 % (link below in references).

Despite these findings, I am not confident that the majority of citizens will realize that public health policies did not serve them or their families well over the last 3 years. Will we critically rethink our response to avoid repeating mistakes? I have my doubts.

Freddie Sayers has been one of the better interviewers and journalists during this pandemic. He has been fair and presented both sides of an issue. A full review of the evidence and perspectives can lead to a more balanced understanding. Unfortunately, claims of misinformation and censorship by the media due to political “fact checkers” and government entities have left many in the dark.

The following is an Essay by Freddie Sayers from “UnHerd Daily.”

Why doesn’t Britain regret lockdown?

“In retrospect, lockdowns were a mistake.”
If you agree with the above statement, you are, I’m afraid, still in the minority. Three years to the day since Britain brought in its first nationwide lockdown, the latest wave of UnHerd Britain polling shows that only 27% of voters agree that lockdowns were a mistake, while 54% disagree and 19% are not sure. The strength of feeling also tilts in the other direction: fully 30% of people strongly disagree with the statement, while only 12% strongly agree.
Having estimated results for all 632 constituencies in Britain, our partners Focaldata could not find a single seat where the “lockdown skeptics” outnumber the “pro-lockdowners.” Chorley in Lancashire and Leeds Central are the closest thing to skeptical enclaves (here, supporters of lockdowns outnumber opponents by a single percentage point) but it is still a minority position. If “defenders of lockdown” were a political party, it would sweep the nation in a landslide.
To those of us at the coalface of interrogating the wisdom of lockdowns for the past three years, it is a bitter pill to swallow. As someone who counts himself among the 12% of voters who strongly agree with the statement, allow me to tell you what life is like inside this embattled minority.
To the majority of people who believe lockdowns were right and necessary, the COVID era was no doubt distressing, but it need not have been cause to re-order their perception of the world. Faced with a new and frightening disease, difficult decisions were taken by the people in charge, but we came together and got through it; mistakes were made, but overall we did what we needed to do.
For the dissenting minority, the past three years have been very different. We have had to grapple with the possibility that, through panic and philosophical confusion, our governing class contrived to make a bad situation much worse. Imagine living with the sense that the manifold evils of the lockdowns that we all now know — ripping up centuries-old traditions of freedom, interrupting a generation’s education, hastening the decline into decrepitude for millions of older people, destroying businesses and our health service, dividing families, saddling our economies with debt, fostering fear and alienation, attacking all the best things in life — needn’t have happened for anything like so long, if at all?
To those who place emphasis on good quality evidence, it has been particularly exasperating. In the early days of 2020, we had only intuitions — there was no real data as to whether lockdowns worked, as they had never been tried in this way. As millions tuned in to our in-depth interviews on UnHerdTV with leading scientists, we made sure to hear arguments in favor of lockdowns as well as against. Devi Sridhar made the case for Zero COVID; Susan Michie said we should be locking down even harder; Neil Ferguson (whose last-ever tweet was a link to his UnHerd interview) told me how exciting it was that the world was attempting to stop a highly infectious disease in its tracks.
There were periods when the evidence looked like it was going the other way, such as Sweden’s worse-than-expected second wave in winter 2020-21. Professor Fredrik Elgh dramatically predicted disaster for that country, which ultimately didn’t transpire — but he had me worried.
In the past year, however, we have for the first time been able to look at the COVID data in the round. Many of the countries which appeared to be doing “well” in terms of low levels of infections and deaths caught up in the second year — Norway ended up much closer to Sweden, while countries such as Hungary, which were initially praised for strong early lockdowns, have ended up with some of the worst death tolls in the world. Due to the peculiarly competitive nature of the lockdowns, the results were neatly tracked, allowing clear comparison between countries and regions. While we spent the first year arguing about deaths “with” COVID as opposed to deaths “from” COVID, all sides in this discussion have now settled on overall “excess deaths” as the fairest measure of success or failure: in other words, overall, how many more people died in a particular place than you would normally expect?
My view on these results is quite simple: in order to justify a policy as monumental as shutting down all of society for the first time in history, the de minimis outcome must be a certainty that fewer people died because of it. Lockdown was not one “lever” among many: it was the nuclear option. The onus must be on those who promoted lockdowns to produce a table showing a clear correlation between the places that enacted mandatory shutdowns and their overall outcome in terms of excess deaths. But there is no such table; there is no positive correlation. Three years after, there is no non-theoretical evidence that lockdowns were necessary to save lives. This is not an ambiguous outcome; it is what failure looks like.
If anything, the correlation now looks like it goes the other way. The refusal of Sweden to bring in a lockdown, and the neighboring Scandinavian countries’ shorter and less interventionist lockdowns and swifter return to normality, provide a powerful control to the international experiment. Three years on, these countries are at the bottom of the European excess deaths league table, and depending on which method you choose, Sweden is either at or very near the very bottom of the list.
So the countries that interfered the least with the delicately balanced ecosystem of their societies caused the least damage; and the only European country to eschew mandatory lockdowns altogether ended up with the smallest increase in loss of life. It’s a fatal datapoint for the argument that lockdowns were the only option.
So why, three years on, do most people not share this conclusion? Partly because most people haven’t seen the evidence. Nor will they. The media and political establishment were so encouraging of lockdowns at the time that their only critique was that they weren’t hard enough. They are hardly going to acknowledge such a grave mistake now. Nor do I expect the inquiry to ask the right questions: obfuscation and distraction will continue, and mea culpas will never arrive.
But it can’t all be put down to the media. Over that strange period, we were reminded of something important about human nature: when frightened, people will choose security over freedom. Endless opinion polls confirmed it, and politicians acted upon it. Tellingly, those constituencies most in favor of lockdowns in our polling are leafy and affluent — New Forest West, Bexhill, Henley, The Cotswolds. Perhaps some people even enjoyed it.
Meanwhile, the dissenting minority is not going anywhere. This new class of citizen is now a feature of every Western society: deeply distrustful of authority, skeptical of the “narrative”, hungry for alternative explanations, inured to being demonized and laughed at. The dissident class skews young (it includes 39% of 25-34 year olds) and clusters around poorer inner-city neighborhoods; it heads to alternative media channels for information. Its number was greatly increased over the lockdown era as those people lost faith in the way the world is run. They will continue to make their presence felt in the years to come.
As for me, the past three years have changed how I view the world. I feel no anger, simply a wariness: an increased sense of how fragile our liberal way of life is, how precarious its institutions and principles, and how good people, including those I greatly admire, are capable of astonishing misjudgments given the right atmosphere of fear and moral panic. In particular, those years revealed the dark side of supposedly enlightened secular rationalism — how, if freed from its moorings, it can tend towards a crudely mechanistic world in which inhuman decisions are justified to achieve dubious measurable targets.
I hope there is no “next time”, and that the political class will never again think nationwide lockdowns are a proper policy option in a liberal democracy. But if they do, I suspect the opposition, while still perhaps a minority, will be better organized.

While public health acknowledgement of mistakes would be appropriate, welcomed, and potentially healing for important institutions, it is unlikely to happen in a meaningful way.

My hope is that medical science will once again respect the uncertainty principle, and recognize that when there is risk, there must be choice.

John Powell M.D.


Cochrane Mask study

U.S. excess mortality from a preprint study using CDC data.

Hairdresser study about masks published by the CDC in 2020


bottom of page