Boris Johnson has worn a mask in the House of Commons chamber for the first time in months, signalling a slightly more cautious approach to Covid, both in parliament and the outside world.
New rules were set down for parliamentary staff on Tuesday in advance of the budget speech, requiring them to wear face coverings around the estate. While there is no such requirement for MPs and the law only says people should use their personal judgment, the number of Conservatives who decided to wear masks was notably higher on Wednesday than it has been in recent weeks when politicians have repeatedly packed into the chamber and sat shoulder to shoulder.
Three frontbenchers appeared maskless as they sat while the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, delivered the autumn budget. They were the Scotland secretary, Alister Jack; the work and pensions secretary, Therese Coffey; and the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The latter has been an ardent critic of mask-wearing, and earlier this month suggested that the reason so few Conservatives were using face coverings in the chamber was because they knew each other and had a “convivial, fraternal spirit”.
Despite the new lead from the Conservative frontbench on Wednesday, a large proportion of Tories chose not to wear masks, prompting criticism from the opposition.
The shadow minister Chi Onwurah said her colleagues had been “strongly encouraged to wear masks and are doing so” but Conservative mask-wearers were “still very much in a minority”.
While Labour has shown keenness to set an example by wearing masks in the chamber, some Conservatives say many opposition MPs do not wear face coverings in other crowded indoor settings away from the TV cameras, including around the parliamentary estate and at party conference.
Keir Starmer was not present to respond to PMQs or the budget after it was revealed on Wednesday morning that he had tested positive for Covid-19. Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary, stood in to put questions to Boris Johnson, while the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, was lined up to respond to Sunak’s speech.
A memo sent around to parliamentary staffers and contractors on Tuesday night said there had been “recent increases in Covid-19 across the country, which are also being reflected in parliament”. It said the rules were being changed to make masks mandatory for everyone working in the palace of Westminster, except for MPs, and that the situation was “highly fluid”.