Unions urge Westminster mask clampdown as MPs catch coronavirus

LONDON — Trade unions called for mask-wearing to be enforced in the U.K. parliament after two MPs tested positive for COVID-19.

Groups representing parliamentary staff accused politicians of “insulting” workers amid a split over whether to don face coverings on the estate.

POLITICO’s London Playbook revealed that Conservative MP Peter Bone contracted the virus two weeks ago, and was spotted in the House of Commons shortly before that not wearing a mask.

Another senior Conservative, Damian Green, confirmed he came down with COVID-19 shortly after parliament was recalled in mid-August to debate Afghanistan, when the majority of Tory MPs chose not to cover their faces in the packed Commons chamber. 

Green said he could not be sure if he picked it up during the session, but said he had been “flattened” by the illness for the second half of August, despite being double-vaccinated. 

Scottish National Party MP Peter Grant posted on Twitter that he had been notified of close contact with a COVID case three times in four weeks at Westminster, adding: “It’s a nuisance for me but what must it be like for the hundreds of parliamentary staff having to work there and seeing MPs brazenly ignoring the COVID rules?”

The decision to wear a mask has become a dividing line in the Commons, with most opposition MPs opting to cover their faces while the majority of Tory MPs eschew covering up. When Boris Johnson’s new Cabinet gathered in a crowded room at Downing Street for the first time last week, there was not a mask in sight. 

Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg have both stressed the official guidance recommends face coverings in indoor spaces with strangers, which, they argue, does not apply to their colleagues assembled in parliament.

MPs have been strongly encouraged to don masks by the parliamentary authorities, but Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle maintains he cannot mandate their use.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents staff in parliament, told POLITICO the refusal to wear masks had become “something of a political statement from Conservative ministers and backbenchers, rather than what it actually is, a basic health and safety requirement to protect the health and wellbeing of others.”

He urged Javid and Rees-Mogg to show “leadership to their colleagues and the country on this issue” rather than the “excruciating spectacle of them trying to justify their actions by suggesting you’re at less risk of catching COVID from your friends.”

Penman took aim at what he called a “ludicrous situation” in which MPs were rebuked by the Commons speaker “for their standards of dress” on Zoom calls but not been challenged on mask-wearing. “The House authorities need to act urgently to find ways to enforce their own rules to protect Commons staff as well as other MPs,” he added.

The GMB union’s branch of MPs’ staff said in a statement: “It’s not right for the prime minister and our MPs to thank parliamentary staff for making the recall possible, while putting their health at risk by not wearing masks. To see so many MPs ignoring the request in the chamber and around the estate is insulting and emphasizes the power divide in our Parliamentary community.”

And Mike Clancy, general secretary of the Prospect union, said the fact two MPs had been infected “shows the risks inherent in the advisory approach taken by the speaker, parliament and government members.” He told POLITICO further infections of MPs and staff risked “putting the ability of Parliament to function at risk.”

A House of Commons spokesperson said: “Our priority is to ensure a safe and functioning parliament in line with government regulations. The chamber and division lobbies are COVID-19 secure, with appropriate ventilation and enhanced levels of cleaning.

“The measures currently in place fully adhere to the public health risk assessment for parliament. All passholders are asked to continue following the safety measures and guidance in place while on the estate, and to play their part in helping to keep the estate COVID-19 secure.”



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