Artillery Row

Do as Tories say, not as Tories do

Conservative politicians instruct us to wear masks — but vice-signal not doing so themselves

Does the Health Secretary believe his own officials? Last Tuesday Sajid Javid squeezed into the House of Commons to sit next to Boris Johnson as the Prime Minister set out his social care plan. The chamber was full. Along with almost every other Conservative MP, Javid wasn’t wearing a face mask.

I’m conscious, I really am, that lecturing other people about their antisocial behaviour is tedious. But here’s the thing: Covid spreads through the air by droplets and aerosols that are exhaled from the nose and mouth of an infected person. I know this, because that’s what the government’s Covid website says.

Here’s another thing: the government expects and recommends that people wear face coverings in crowded and enclosed areas where they come into contact with people they do not normally meet. I know that, because that’s the next thing the Covid website says.

Tories are bored of Covid, and so are we all. Nevertheless, parents and teachers are going through the unpleasant business of sticking swabs up the noses of children twice a week, because the government has asked us to. People in crowded and enclosed areas — shops, trains, buses and so on — are wearing facemasks, because that is what the government has asked us to do. People who test positive are isolating at home for 10 days because that is the law. It really is not too much to ask for the people who run the government and make the laws to do the same.

A Tory MP explained to me that it is a tribal thing: like heroin addicts sharing needles

Perhaps the advice is wrong. Public health officials haven’t got everything right in the past 18 months. Handily, Sajid Javid, unlike the rest of us, is in a position to do something about this. If he thinks the advice is wrong, he can get it changed. That he hasn’t done so suggests that he doesn’t think the advice is wrong, he just doesn’t like following it.

The shift in the Tory Party over the last three years is easy to see whenever Johnson and his predecessor are in the chamber. Two rows behind the prime minister, Theresa May wears her mask. The rest of the party revels in the example that Johnson has set throughout the crisis, whether it was over Dominic Cummings or Matt Hancock or his own attempt earlier in the summer to sidestep contact-tracing: one rule for the little people, another rule for us.

A Tory MP I discussed this with explained to me that it is a tribal thing: like heroin addicts sharing needles, Conservatives don’t wear masks in the chamber as a show of solidarity. Quite who this is supposed to impress is unclear, but I’ve been invited to a right-leaning drinks party this week, and I’ll be doing my bit to show support by coughing over the canapes. That’ll teach Chris Whitty.

We hear a lot from Tories about personal responsibility. Right now there is no better counter to the idea that people who are given the choice will do the right thing than the sight of 300-odd maskless Conservative MPs packed into a poorly ventilated room shouting their heads off while we discuss how to respond to an airborne virus.

Change the advice, or follow it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover