Jacob Rees-Mogg is on a collision course with the Speaker, unions and fellow parliamentarians after urging MPs to return to the Commons next month to “set an example” to the rest of the country.
Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, said MPs should “lead by example” in encouraging people back to work by returning to Westminster as the UK moves past the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. Whitehall sources said the government was aiming for a return in early June.
The move would go against current advice to MPs and thousands of support staff and civil servants who work in parliament. At present, they are under instructions to stay at home and to go to the parliamentary estate only if they cannot avoid it.
It would also put the government on a collision course with the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who wrote to parliamentary staff earlier this week urging them to continue to work from home and not to put themselves or their families “at risk”.
Following parliament’s first-ever remote vote on Tuesday evening, Rees-Mogg told MPs that he would extend virtual voting to 20 May but did not expect to do so again.
“It is clear that soon parliament must set an example of how we move back gradually to a fully functioning country again. Our constituents would expect nothing less,” he said.
“So while we must move in step with public health guidance, it is vital that when we are asking other people to work and go to their places of work if they cannot do so from home we should not be the ones who are exempt from that.
“Indeed, we should be leading by example.”
Rees-Mogg’s urging appears to contradict a message sent by Hoyle on parliament’s intranet system this week. The Speaker urged staff to work remotely where possible and stated that there were no plans to change the current working arrangements, it is understood.
Politicians and unions said the call was irresponsible. A Labour party spokesperson said ending “the successful hybrid virtual system flies in the face of the government’s own public health advice and its message to work from home where possible”.
“The priority must be protecting the health and wellbeing of all those who work in parliament,” the spokesperson added.
Dave Penman, the head of the FDA, which represents senior clerks and civil servants in parliament, said Rees-Mogg’s words were baffling after the huge amount of work that had gone into enabling parliament to work remotely.
“Staff have been working tirelessly to ensure the effective working of parliament in these extraordinary circumstances, balancing the needs of an effective democracy with the protection of parliamentarians and the thousands of staff who are necessary to make parliament work.
“A return to normal parliamentary business will see thousands of staff travelling to, and working in, the confined spaces of parliament.
“We are seeking urgent consultation on this proposal including a full risk assessment, which we should be conducted jointly with the trade unions with the results published for all to see.”
Garry Graham, Prospect’s deputy general secretary, said: “The guidelines for other workplaces however, which stipulate for example staggered shifts, cannot be applied here. This could create a massively elevated risk to parliamentary staff.
“For parliament to return in full, safely, there must be proposals in place to limit the number of people working at any one time, and to protect those who have to work. The supply of appropriate PPE must be included in these proposals.”
SNP MP Tommy Sheppard said: “It is crucial that MPs can continue to participate in parliament virtually. Forcing MPs to travel back and forth hundreds of miles across the UK to Westminster would create an unnecessary risk of infection in our communities – and could put lives at risk.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) guidance on face masks has remained consistent during the coronavirus pandemic. It has stuck to the line that masks are for healthcare workers – not the public.
“Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including Covid-19. However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted,” the WHO has stated.
Nevertheless, as some countries have eased lockdown conditions, they have been making it mandatory to wear face coverings outside, as a way of trying to inhibit spread of the virus. This is in the belief that the face covering will prevent people who cough and sneeze ejecting the virus any great distance.
There is no robust scientific evidence – in the form of trials – that ordinary masks block the virus from infecting people who wear them. There is also concerns the public will not understand how to use a mask properly, and may get infected if they come into contact with the virus when they take it off and then touch their faces.
Also underlying the WHO’s concerns is the shortage of high-quality protective masks for frontline healthcare workers.
Nevertheless, masks do have a role when used by people who are already infected. It is accepted that they can block transmission to other people. Given that many people with Covid-19 do not show any symptoms for the first days after they are infected, masks clearly have a potential role to play, especially on crowded public transport as people return to work..
Sarah Boseley Health editor
Rees-Mogg’s call follows the government’s 60-page “roadmap” published on Monday, which said: “It is vital that parliament can continue to scrutinise the government, consider the government’s ambitious legislative agenda and legislate to support the Covid-19 response.
“Parliament must set a national example of how business can continue in this new normal; and it must move, in step with public health guidance, to get back to business as part of this next step, including a move towards further physical proceedings in the House of Commons.”
Stringent physical distancing measures have been introduced to the House of Commons chamber which means that only around 50 MPs can enter at one time.