Face masks should not become a “sign of virtue”, a government minister has said as she and her Conservative colleagues come under pressure to lead by example and wear them in the House of Commons.
Gillian Keegan, the minister of state for care, told Sky News masks were “less relevant” than vaccines and boosters in the race to curb surging cases of coronavirus, which on Thursday surpassed 50,000 in a single day for the first time in three months.
A row has broken out within the Tory party over wearing masks after the health secretary, Sajid Javid, called on Wednesday for MPs to set a good example by masking up to help avoid further restrictions being introduced.
No 10 appeared surprised that Javid issued the call and declined to back his advice, instead pointing to the guidance on wearing them around less familiar faces.
The Commons Leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, then raised eyebrows when he suggested on Thursday that Tories do not need to wear face coverings in parliament because of a “convivial, fraternal spirit”.
Asked for the downsides to wearing masks, Keegan said: “There’s a downside to many of these things; some people find mask-wearing difficult. It’s a personal choice.”
“Many people do wear masks," lei ha aggiunto. “It’s about personal choice, we’re not the sort of country that tells you what to wear.”
Keegan said the British public “know what to do” to keep safe and that it was not for the government to mandate, but there was that option as a backup, adding the right thing to do was come forward for a vaccine and booster.
Pressed on scenes in the packed House of Commons, which show only a small number of the hundreds of Conservative MPs wearing masks, lei disse: “We shouldn’t make it a sign of virtue or not.”
“More people will start to wear masks as we get into winter but it’s not very comfortable sitting there for hours in a mask," lei disse. “I’m sure everybody [in the House of Commons] has been vaccinated and everyone will get their booster.”
She said it was a “social responsibility to get the vaccine, get the booster, then behave sensibly” but said any decision to cut the delay between the second dose of the Covid vaccine and the booster jab will depend on the advice of the experts on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Javid told MPs in September the government could bring in additional measures as a “plan B” if the focus on vaccination – plan A – was not doing enough to protect the NHS, including introducing mandatory Covid passports, making face coverings compulsory again and advising people to work from home.
The government has resisted a barrage of calls from medical experts to enact plan B immediately, insisting that the NHS is not yet under unsustainable pressure.