This week i went to the office for the first time in six months, and perhaps the last time in six months. on the train home, i confronted a man who wasnt wearing a mask. it didnt go brilliantly. he claimed to be exempt, i didnt believe him because he hadnt respected social distancing.

I ended up posting a photo of him on twitter, then deleting it. in retrospect, i should have acted differently.

Britain is lagging behind on masks. in japan, people with colds wore masks long before covid-19. in rome, youre stopped if you try to go on the metro or into a supermarket without a mask. in paris, youre meant to wear a mask whenever youre in public unless youre exercising (or smoking). even some visitors from the us, where mask-wearing is ideological and regional, can be surprised by how few are worn in the uk.

Boris johnson explained the uks poor covid-19 record, compared to germany and italy, by saying we are a freedom-loving country. come off it, we allow lots of cctv cameras and support coronavirus restrictions. most british mask-wearers are more hostile to non-mask-wearers than they are to people with whom they disagree on brexit.

But who should enforce the rules? not train staff, who receive enough abuse already. shops, too, are reluctant to turn away customers. and i discovered that social media shaming is not the way to go.

The problem is that we brits are reticent. we know theres a chance that someone might have a valid reason for not wearing a mask; theres no precise definition of who is exempt.

I am sceptical that most non-mask-wearers on london trains areexempt, especially those who are chatting in groups. (even severe asthmatics can probably wear a mask.)i think most of the mask-less just cant be bothered. their behaviour will undermine others commitment, and dissuade people from using trains and going to shops.

So we have the same dilemma that we have when we see a stranger throw litter, or wolf-whistle at a woman on the street, or not give up their seat to an elderly person. we can stay silent, and hope that overstretched police officers or underpaid service workers deal with it. or we can ask the question risking awkwardness, but ensuring that flouting norms incurs some peer pressure.

Former prime minister david cameron dreamt of a big society. he failed to understand that the authorities have to give that society a helping hand. with masks, train operators should make a freely-available badge for those with exemptions, as we already do for pregnant women. that would make it hard for people who just cant be bothered to wear one to claim they are exempt. transport for london, which runs the tube, says it is developing one.

Would a badge single out those with disabilities? no: if you dont wear a mask on public transport, you are already singling yourself out as either exempt or a rule-breaker. wouldnt it be better to make clear you are not the latter? a badge would ensure you are not confronted by train staff. it would be no different to a parking blue badge.

I dont want to live in a society of busybodies. ministers say that britons should report their neighbours if they breach the rule of six people at a social gathering. two-thirds of the public say they wouldnt, and im with them.

But i want to live in a society where citizens take responsibility for upholding norms. a society where people politely confront non-mask-wearers is also a society where people offer to help carry buggies and shopping. im no model citizen, and ive never regretted being asked to give up my seat when ive been oblivious to others needs.

Britons are balancing our health concerns with our national shyness. the pandemic should nudge us to talk to each other more.

Follow henry mancemyftand ontwitter