Trade unions representing workers in parliament have expressed “incredulity, anger and concern” at a decision not to make MPs continue to wear face masks from next week.
Following confirmation that England will move to step four of the government’s roadmap for lifting COVID restrictions from 19 July, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, this week set out how rules will be relaxed in parliament.
MPs will sit for a further four days between the ending of restrictions on Monday and their summer break from 22 July.
And, during those four days, a range of social distancing measures will be removed in the Commons and around the parliamentary estate.
This includes MPs being “encouraged” to wear face coverings while in the Commons chamber, although the Speaker said this would not be mandatory.
Similarly, MPs will be “encouraged” to continue wearing face coverings while moving around the wider parliamentary estate.
However, the Speaker’s stance has prompted a row with unions representing parliamentary staff, for whom mask-wearing will remain compulsory.
In a letter to Sir Lindsay, the representatives of three trade unions told the Speaker that the “reaction of staff across parliament has been one of incredulity, anger and concern”.
“In particular, staff have expressed concern at the decision to make mask-wearing compulsory for staff but only ‘encouraged’ for MPs,” they wrote.
“This is a stark example of how rules in parliament apply only to some and not to others.
“It also hints at a failure by the employer to exercise its duty of care to its own employees.”
The union leaders told Sir Lindsay that rising COVID infection rates in London meant there was a “high likelihood of increasing numbers on the estate leading to infected individuals interacting with staff and others who are not fully vaccinated”.
The also disputed a claim that the absence of an “employment relationship” between parliament and MPs meant there was no ability to mandate MPs to wear masks.
They suggested parliament’s dress code for MPs could “surely be extended as a temporary health measure” to compel mask-wearing.
“Further, you will recognise that the House has no more of an ’employment relationship’ with MPs’ staff than it does with MPs themselves,” the letter to Sir Lindsay added.
“We do not understand how a disparity of treatment of these groups is justified.”
Sir Lindsay was asked to “urgently reconsider” the guidance to MPs.
Some MPs have recently expressed their excitement at being able to ditch face masks once the government’s legal requirement to wear them in certain settings ends on Monday.
However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is still encouraging people to wear face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces, such as public transport, and when mixing with strangers.