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Conservative MPs do not have to wear masks in the House of Commons, despite pleas from the Speaker, because they know each other, Sajid Javid has said.
The Health Secretary said Tory MPs were not “strangers” and Government guidance says the public should only wear masks when they are “with people that they are not normally spending time with”.
Photographs of a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday show no ministers or officials wearing masks, prompting criticism and questions about the rules.
Asked about the meeting, and similar photographs of the Conservative back benches in Parliament, Mr Javid said: “That is perfectly consistent with what the Prime Minister said yesterday, and what I said yesterday, because what we said was that people should consider wearing masks in crowded places, when they are with strangers, when they are with people that they are not normally spending time with.”
Pressed on whether Conservative MPs would be wearing masks on Wednesday during Prime Minister’s Questions, he said: “They're not strangers.
“Conservative backbenchers, whether they are in Parliament in the Chamber, or the other meeting rooms...you have to take measures that are appropriate for the prevalence of Covid at the time.”
Conservatives have tended not to wear masks in Parliament since the return of MPs to physical debates, while Labour and other opposition MPs usually do.
On Tuesday a Labour spokesman said the pictures of the maskless Cabinet meeting “looks like it’s one rule for them and another rule for everyone else”.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons Speaker, has urged MPs to wear masks in the Chamber, following an outbreak of the virus among parliamentary staff.
But Sir Lindsay does not have the power to compel MPs to wear them.
Signs around the Parliamentary estate urge politicians, their staff and visitors to wear a face covering.
As Mr Javid announced on Tuesday that masks could become mandatory again if there is an uptick in hospitalisations this winter, he was greeted with jeers from the Tory back benches.
The decision to wear a mask is now legally a personal choice, but travel operators may ask their passengers to wear one as a condition of carriage.
The World Health Organisation's special envoy Dr David Nabarro said: "In some countries the actual act of wearing a mask or accepting some restrictions that Covid requires is some sort of political activity you do if you belong to one party.
"And if you do it you belong to one party, and if you don't you belong to another. I want to be very clear, this virus has no political affiliations at all.
"The facts are the same, whatever party you vote for."