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Corona etiquette: How to navigate your return to Westminster

Published: in European News by .

SW1 insiders are following new social rules as they dip their toes back into the water.

LONDON — Politicos are slowly drifting back to Westminster as more and more of its inhabitants are vaccinated. For some (particularly the proud recipients of two jabs), the return has been liberating. Others feel more tentative about diving back into the Westminster maelstrom.

Even Westminster-watchers following the ever-changing guidance admit they are all at sea over the rules, and are finding the resumption of social interaction a potential minefield. “As if social etiquette in Westminster wasn’t tricky enough,” one staffer moaned.

Forget Debrett’s, Britain’s long-running authority on etiquette. POLITICO spoke to those already back in the thick of it to get their verdict on navigating the return to Westminster.

Masked identity

With MPs and their staffers expected to walk the halls of Westminster with their face masks on, there are plenty of dangers for loitering hacks hungry for a story, or MPs and staffers waiting to pounce on a minister or old friend. The main challenge is facial recognition: with half a face obscured, it’s often too late to back out of an approach.

One lobby correspondent cited the very real danger of “mistaking [Tory MP] Andrew Bridgen for [other Tory MP] Mark Francois” in their hunt for scoops. Others moaned about contacts who’ve undergone a lockdown transformation, whether an intentional change of hair color or style, or something more unintentional, like going bald.

Most advised nervous Westminster inhabitants to still make an approach. After all, with everyone’s faces equally obscured, it’s likely your blushes will be obscured and your identity protected. “It is definitely a problem,” another staffer added. “But a nice one. It’s an opportunity to make new friends.”

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They also warned of the importance of mask hygiene. “Make sure that you don’t wear the same mask every day. The floral prints are nice, but it sort of gives away whether or not you’re a hygienic face mask wearer.”

Fresh air?

If in doubt, offer fresh air when arranging meetings.

While some people are relieved to finally be allowed to throw off their coat and meet indoors, Westminster’s more COVID-cautious would rather brave the unseasonably wet and cold weather to keep the fresh air flowing.

Bar Boisdale in Belgravia proved to be a popular outdoor meeting venue for some Tory MPs ahead of the May 17 opening, but with the cafes and restaurants on parliament’s picturesque terrace now back in business, many are choosing to look out over the Thames and London Eye and let the wind waft away the COVID particles.

The pandemic has also been a chance for some MPs and advisers to pretend they work in the White House by emulating scenes from TV drama “The West Wing” and holding meetings on the move.

Another popular location is one used by spies in times gone by — St James’s Park, just over the road from the Houses of Parliament.

“While restaurants were shut, lots of lobby hacks developed a habit of taking their sources out for laps of St James’s Park. It might have helped some of us shed a few lockdown pounds — which we’ll no doubt swiftly regain now that the pubs are open again,” another Westminster wag lamented.

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Or stay warm?

Once you’ve ascertained your contact is reasonably relaxed (or double-jabbed), you might broach the subject of an indoor meeting.

The atrium of Portcullis House, the building neighboring parliament where many MPs have their offices, is overrun with people mingling and trading gossip in normal times. It is currently a cavernous space with spaced-out tables for one where doorkeepers are “practically measuring your distance with a two-meter ruler,” according to the second staffer.

With that kind of environment lacking much appeal and hampering discretion, journalists and staffers report many have withdrawn to MPs’ offices to plot and brief.

Business meetings in offices are allowed, but rumors that beers have been served might push the boundaries a touch.

It is also worth checking your preferred lunch location now indoor hospitality is back on the menu. Sadly the pandemic has been fatal to some of Westminster’s most popular eateries. Roux at Parliament Square — once a popular location for a long lunch — announced last year that it was permanently closing.

Time is precious

With many still living a hybrid existence and largely working from home, time in Westminster is precious for some, making it important to sell the purpose of your meeting.

MPs, staffers and hacks with nothing better to do than sit in a bar and trade gossip are more of a rarity, with many in the political world noting their contacts are being more careful with their time.

Getting the balance between meeting those in the office and including those still working at home is also a challenge, the second staffer cautioned. Getting home-working colleagues on a Zoom call is still key, they said.

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Are you jabbed?

Asking if someone is jabbed, and what with, could be a potentially leading question.

The timing and brand of jab has the potential to give away your age. Those in denial about turning 40 may not want to let on they were given AstraZeneca, which regulators are now advising against for the under-40s.

Others may not want to go into underlying health conditions which might have pushed them up the priority list, or admit they have found a way to skip the queue.

It is always better to wait for your contact to reveal their jabbed status (which will likely have been advertised on Twitter or in POLITICO’s London Playbook).

With many special advisers, researchers and journalists (and even some MPs) still in their 20s and waiting for a vaccine, bragging about your immunity could also come across as a little smug.

Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/corona-etiquette-westminster-forget-debrett/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication

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