'We’ll be writing to every MP spotted not wearing a face covering to challenge them to do the decent thing.'
Jawad Raza is national officer at the FDA, the trade union representing professionals and managers in public service.
From Monday 19 July, as COVID-19 restrictions are further eased, parliamentary staff will continue to wear face coverings to protect everybody working across the parliamentary estate. Unfortunately, it’s become clear that not all Members of Parliament will show them the same courtesy.
The House of Commons Commission has taken the decision to relax the rules on the parliamentary estate, effectively ending the health and safety measures that have been in place since the start of the pandemic. Allowing up to 650 MPs to cram themselves into the chamber as infection rates soar is, quite obviously, a reckless decision.
The fact it’s happening on the last week before recess makes it seem all the more ill-judged. Pair that with the fact MPs won’t even be required to take the most basic health and safety measure of continuing to wear face coverings, and it appears to be nothing more than a political stunt that shows scant regard for the wellbeing of all staff who have no choice but to be on site.
During the pandemic, our members have shown they can effectively operate remotely where appropriate, supporting vital parliamentary business to carry on while greatly reducing the number of staff on site to around 1,000 – 2,000 a day. Next week, as the chamber returns to full capacity and hospitality venues open, this will increase to up to 7,000.
The Palace of Westminster is a historic building. It’s known to have poor ventilation. Many windows in enclosed spaces do not open. Corridors can be narrow, making social distancing impossible. It’s often overlooked but parliament isn’t just the home of British democracy, it’s also a workplace and our members are rightly concerned. Not all staff will have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated and some may have vulnerable family members or, indeed, be vulnerable themselves.
The House of Commons risk assessment clearly mandates that, after 19 July, all staff on the estate must wear a face covering in indoor spaces such as communal areas, in passenger lifts, queuing in catering facilities and moving around the estate. It also states people should wear a face covering when asked to do so and when it would make someone else feel comfortable – for example, when in someone else’s office.
To me, these seem like the most basic steps to take to show compassion for your colleagues and reduce the risk of transmission, and all of our members will be mandated to follow them. Why then, are MPs exempt from following the same rules as everybody else?
There are always constitutional questions to answer when it comes to setting rules for MPs. They, quite rightly, have certain privileges due to their position but let’s be honest here, this isn’t a constitutional conundrum, it’s a matter of health and safety in the workplace.
We think the House of Commons Commission should have taken a stronger line with MPs, they have an obligation to provide that duty of care to its employees for health and safety. It has not. The Government could have shown leadership in telling all MPs that they must continue to wear face coverings. It has not. Instead, we’ve actually seen the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, publicly saying he won’t wear a face covering. What kind of a message does that send?
The FDA, unfortunately, has had no choice but to commit to calling out MPs who refuse to wear a face covering who are not exempt. Those MPs who do so are willingly putting parliamentary staff at risk – from cleaners, to security, to clerks, to their own staff – who have all done so much to ensure the vital work of Parliament has been able to continue over the last 16 months.We know most MPs will continue to take precautions but we’ve already had one MP proudly tell us he won’t wear a face covering next week.
As such, we’ll be writing to every MP spotted not wearing a face covering to challenge them to do the decent thing. Let’s drop the political grandstanding, it’s not about that. MPs should take responsibility and demonstrate caution by continuing to wear face coverings across parliamentary estate. It really is the least they could do to protect staff.
In response, a House of Commons Commission spokesperson said: “The House of Commons Commission has received further representation from Parliament’s unions regarding the wearing of face masks in the House of Commons. Our priority is to ensure a safe and functioning Parliament in line with Government regulations.
“We hope that numbers on the Parliamentary Estate will remain limited next week and that all passholders will continue to exercise caution as we enter step 4. We will, of course, monitor the situation from day to day.”
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