Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has refused to extend a VAT holiday on personal protective equipment, with Labour describing the move as a "mask tax".
The Government said prices for personal protective equipment (PPE) had come down since the start of the pandemic – when demand was outstripping supply – and it now had sufficient stockpiles to deliver equipment to hospitals and care homes through the winter.
But critics claim putting 20 per cent onto the price of disposable face coverings will cost the average family an extra £15 per month.
At the height of the pandemic, high street retailers were accused of profiteering by selling disposable face masks for up to 75p each, whereas boxes of 50 now typically sell for around £8 – around a fifth of the price they were in the spring. Adding 20 per cent VAT would increase the price of an £8 box of 50 masks to £9.60.
Labour claims such a rise could cost the average family more than £90 over the next six months, with some families getting through several boxes of masks per week.
Reimposing VAT on PPE will bring in around £85 million in tax for the Treasury. The temporary abolition of VAT on disposable face coverings will expire at the end of October, having been extended in August.
The Government has defended the move, arguing that the VAT holiday on PPE had served its purpose.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "It is probably worth me setting out what the VAT relief on PPE was designed to do, and that was to accelerate supply to the health and social care sectors when supply did not match demand earlier this year. What it did was save them around £200 million when they needed it.
"Prices and supply have now stabilised and we have committed to providing free PPE to every adult care home, who have been the main beneficiaries of this tax relief, until March 2021. Also, most businesses can recover any VAT that they will incur [when buying] PPE as business expenses."
Families can avoid paying more for personal PPE by using washable face coverings, which are also more environmentally friendly because they cut down on waste.
However, the shadow financial secretary to the Treasury, James Murray, said the decision was "the last thing" families need, adding: "It's unbelievable that the Government wants to introduce a mask tax in the middle of a pandemic.
"With Covid cases on the rise across the country, the Government should be doing all it can to help people follow its own guidance to wear a mask, not ramping up the cost of buying one.
"Families across the country are already struggling financially as a result of the crisis. The last thing they need is to be penalised for doing the right thing."