A call by the health secretary, Sajid Javid, for MPs to show more of an example over measures to combat Covid by wearing masks in the Commons has seemingly had an impact, with a notable increase in face covering on Conservative benches on Thursday.
Since parliament resumed after the summer break there has been a clear contrast in mask use between opposition MPs, the majority of whom have worn them, and Conservatives, most of whom have not.
But in an admittedly sparsely attended chamber on Thursday morning, during an urgent Labour question on Covid, six of the 12 Conservative MPs present were wearing masks, a much higher proportion than usual.
They did not include Maggie Throup, the junior health minister who was responding to the question. But her health department colleague Gillian Keegan was masked on the front bench. Among Tory refuseniks were the likes of Desmond Swayne and Mark Harper, who oppose many Covid measures.
It comes after Javid unexpectedly called for more MPs to wear masks at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday. Previously ministers have brushed aside concerns about maskless Tory MPs crammed into the Commons chamber, a compact arena with limited ventilation, saying it was within guidelines as the MPs are colleagues.
At the press conference, Javid was asked about the risks of mixed messages on masks and other areas, such as the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, encouraging the public to book Christmas parties.
Javid conceded this was an issue. “I think that is a very fair point. As I say, we’ve all got our role to play in this,” he said, standing alongside Jenny Harries, head of the new UK Health Security Agency, and Stephen Powis, the medical director of NHS England.
Javid said: “We, the people standing on this stage, we play … our public roles as secretary of state, as someone from the NHS, as the head of UKHSA. But we also have a role to play in setting an example as private individuals as well, and I think that’s a very fair point, and I’m sure a lot of people will have heard you.”
It is understood that Javid’s comments on masks were not expected by Downing Street or party whips, and there has been no formal instruction from Tory whips for MPs to wear masks in the chamber.
Asked if Boris Johnson would wear one when next in the Commons, the prime minister’s spokesperson said he had been unable to ask him, as Johnson was on a visit to Northern Ireland. He added: ““It remains the case that it a matter of personal judgment for all individuals on wearing a mask.”
Before the urgent question, the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, criticised Javid for his comments about masks – but only for making them at a press conference rather than telling MPs in person.