Bella Wallersteiner works as Senior Parliamentary Assistant for a Conservative MP.
After England moved to step four of the Government’s roadmap for lifting Covid restrictions, Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, confirmed that face masks were no longer mandatory for Members of Parliament from July 19. Instead, MPs are being “encouraged” to wear face coverings while moving around the wider Parliamentary estate.
Unfortunately, the same discretionary freedom has not been afforded to parliamentary staff for whom mask-wearing remains compulsory. Unions have been quick to point out the unfair and divisive nature of one set of rules for MPs and another set of rules for people working in the engine room of our legislature.
Before the summer recess, a significant number of Conservative MPs celebrated “Freedom Day” by ditching face masks in the House of Commons for the final Prime Minister’s Questions. And who can blame them? Many of us are desperate to say good-riddance to masks, tear down the bossy and infantilising signs which remind us to practice good hygiene (like washing our hands), remove the pointless one-way systems (we all know how to maintain social distance after 16 months of practice) and dismantle the entire edifice which has given birth to a micro-industry of excuses for disruption “due to Covid”.
And, yes, I am aware that we have all been through a lot since the pandemic started, and need to respect personal choices as not everyone is ready to return to “normal”. If wearing a mask makes some people feel safer, then that is their right and I would not belittle “brainwashed sheeple” as some freedom crusaders have done.
My concern is that once again our legislators seem to think that it is acceptable to have one rule them, another for Parliamentary staffers who must continue to wear face coverings. Until now, the decision to wear a face covering has been a legal requirement, not a matter of personal choice.
All this changed when the Prime Minister told the public that they are no longer legally required to wear masks from July 19 (in spite of Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Office for England, advising that masks should be worn as a “common courtesy”). A confusing miasma of different rules in different settings means that transport operators and some shops have decided to make face coverings mandatory which could bring them into conflict with equality legislation.
The Government has succeeded in making the face covering a daily battle ground between libertarians and those who believe that it is irresponsible to dispense with all protection at a time when nearly 50,000 people a day are testing positive for Coronavirus.
I have stopped wearing my mask in virtually every setting – but as a parliamentary staffer I will be required to carry on wearing one at work. This is just another example of how Covid “guidance” has broken down and become illogical. The Government needs to make up its mind – wearing a face mask should be either mandatory or discretionary, it cannot be both.
I drew attention to this contradiction on social media and Steve Baker, MP for High Wycombe, wrote to the Speaker about this blatant discrepancy in the rules. The Speaker confirmed the House of Commons’ position which is that the Speaker has “no power to prevent democratically elected members from coming on to the estate or in to the chamber when the House is sitting. As such, there is no meaningful way to enforce a requirement on members to wear a face covering.” Sadly, he would not be drawn on the issue of Parliamentary staff being required to wear face coverings at work. In solidarity with staffers, Baker will continue to wear a face mask around Parliament.
The next battleground in the fight for freedom and equality will be the so-called “vaccine passports” for domestic events. The Speaker has rejected the use of Covid passports for MPs around Parliament, but has made no mention of staffers. Vaccination passports will discriminate against people based on decisions they have freely made and threatens the foundations of our liberal society. I have been vaccinated against Covid-19, a personal choice, but I would never stigmatise anyone who is unable to be vaccinated to or chooses not to be vaccinated.
But rules are there to be interpreted in subjective ways as we saw when foreign VIPs were exempted from the burden of travel quarantine to attend the Euro 2020 finals. Who can forget the scenes from the G7 gathering in Cornwall where any pretence of following social distancing rules were dropped quicker than you can say “Build Back Better”.
Fortunately, there are MPs willing to stand up to this discrimination and unfairness. Rumours of a vaccine passport being a condition of entry for the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester in October have led to a number of Conservative MPs saying they will boycott the event. I have already confirmed publicly I will not attend conference if such discriminatory measures are in place.
The Government so far has presented the pandemic as an “all in it together” chapter of national solidarity. However, this has led to people being branded selfish for visiting family members living overseas or simply going abroad with their families for a summer break after 16 months of self-incarceration. This sort of intolerance is harming the UK’s reputation for nurturing a culture of individualism and self-regulation.
Ministers have enjoyed wide public support even from those horrified by a level of authoritarianism which has not been seen in this country since the time of Oliver Cromwell. It has been borne on the belief that it would be temporary and, once the vaccines were rolled out, dispensed with forever.
But now an “us vs them” dynamic has emerged which is threatening to upset public trust and Parliament is just a microcosm of this phenomenon.
Credibility and honesty will be critical in completing the immense effort we have all undertaken in response to this crisis. Dominic Cummings has shown us what happens to a government’s health message when those responsible for it fail to adhere to their own rules. We have stopped people from leaving their homes and seeing their dying loved ones in the name of being “all in this together”. The Government must restore confidence by pressing ahead with releasing all lockdown restrictions for everyone.
Freedom Day was supposed to be the moment when the country would be liberated from the tyranny of Covid. Instead, we are in danger of entering a two-tiered Orwellian society where “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”