A full-capacity House of Commons met without the yoke of pandemic restrictions for the first time in 18 months, revealing a stark new UK political divide: masks.
To see which MPs would be wearing masks (still recommended by government guidelines for crowded indoor spaces) political pundits had been expecting to wait until the return of Parliament in early September.
That moment was brought forward when the government called an extraordinary session of the House of Commons for Aug. 18, to discuss the crisis in Afghanistan.
The pattern in the full-capacity chamber was clear.
On the Conservative government benches only a small proportion of MPs wore masks. The prime minister and most of his Cabinet did not wear masks.
On the opposition benches, meanwhile, the Labour leader and his shadow cabinet all wore face coverings, as did most Labour MPs, except to speak.
The only government ministers to wear masks were Cabinet secretary Michael Gove and security minister Damian Hinds.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May, and former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt were in the small minority who wore face coverings on the government back benches.
Mask-wearing for indoor spaces has not been required by law since July, replaced instead by government guidance. That guidance states, “We expect and recommend that members of the public continue to wear face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces where you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet.”
Some MPs criticised the government for hypocrisy or for setting a bad example. Labour MP Dame Angela Eagle wrote on Twitter: “Not a single member of the Government front bench wearing a mask from PM & Health Secretary on down. Almost no other Tory either.”
Asked why a number of MPs were not wearing masks in the House of Commons, the prime minister’s official spokesman said it was a matter for the parliamentary authorities.
The spokesman said the advice “still remains” that face coverings should be worn in indoor crowded spaces. But he added, “The arrangements for the House are a matter for the parliamentary authorities; as you know masks are not a mandatory requirement.”
The heated debate on Afghanistan, despite having no vote, left the chamber with standing-room only. That’s the normal state of affairs before a vote or important debate, but has not been seen since the start of the pandemic.
For the last 16 months, only a small proportion of MPs have been allowed to attend debates and votes in person in the chambers due to social distancing regulations. The majority of MPs have joined votes and debates remotely. That approach has now been revoked.
Meanwhile, in the House of Lords, where the average age is 20 years older, lawmakers are still able to join debates remotely, which many did today during a parallel session on the Afghanistan crisis.
PA contributed to this report.