Cabinet ministers have been accused of undermining Covid’s advice and endangering the safety of MPs and parliamentary staff by refusing to wear masks, as the Commons room packed to discuss Afghanistan’s takeover of Taliban.
Only two government frontbenchers chose to wear a face mask when recalled parliament on Wednesday – the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, and the new security minister, Damian Hinds – despite official guidance recommending that they be worn in “tight and enclosed spaces”.
Ministers raised the mandatory requirement for masks to be worn in most places on July 19, instead of allowing people to make their own decisions about where and where to use them. However, Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, urged MPs to continue wearing masks in the room, though she admitted she would not force them to do so.
When Boris Johnson opened the debate about the fall of the Afghan government without him wearing a mask, like most other ministers sitting on the front green bank. The two masked men sat at the end of the row near Hoyle.
The sight of MPs digging shoulders is an unfamiliar sight for many Westminster observers, as the social distance fell just days before parliament went into recess last month. There used to be a capacity limit of 64 people in the room – but the first time it was noticeably exceeded was on Wednesday.
Among the swathes of the unmasked Conservatives, there are a few other notable exceptions to the backbenchers: former prime minister Theresa May, the head of the health select committee, Jeremy Hunt, and Dr Luke Evans.
All Labor frontbenchers, including the party leader, Keir Starmer, and his deputy, Angela Rayner, wore masks.
Mike Clancy, Prospect’s general secretary of the union, who represents many parliamentary staff, said it was disappointing to so many Conservative MPs who “chose to ignore the Speaker’s very clear advice about wearing masks in an enclosed space”.
He added: “Not only does this show great disrespect to the Speaker, it shows contempt for the safety of their colleagues and many staff attending the packed room who are required to wear masks.
“It is abundantly clear that a large number of MPs believe the policies do not apply to them, and are comfortable with the reckless weakening of public health messaging.
“With the Commons scheduled to continue throughout the week in just a few weeks, it’s time to rethink the light-touch mask-wearing approach in the room. It has shown to have failed, and stricter enforcement should be considered.”
Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), tweeted that it is “sad and regrettable when an issue like the wearing of masks becomes a political issue”.
A House of Commons The spokesman said: “Our priority is to ensure a safe and functioning parliament that complies with government regulations.
“Passers-by must continue to be vigilant when they are on the estate and of course, we will monitor the situation daily.”