On Sunday, the cabinet office minister told TV viewers: “It is basic good manners, courtesy and consideration to wear a face mask if, for example, you are in a shop.”
Yet, on Tuesday, he was photographed in a branch of Pret a Manger without a mask, even as his cabinet colleague Liz Truss’s face was covered up as she bought her breakfast.
A professor of public health said Mr Gove’s behaviour was “very destructive” to what was already “very confused” government messaging.
“When people see politicians adding to the confusion, they throw their hands up in the air and say ‘Why should I bother?’ Gabriel Scally told The Independent.
And Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, said: “Michael Gove's refusal to wear a mask today will simply lead to more accusations that it is one rule for the government, and one for everyone else.”
The controversy came after Mr Gove was left embarrassed when Boris Johnson overruled him and announced mask-wearing in shops in England will be compulsory – from 24 July.
Ministers were already facing criticism for delaying the crackdown by 10 days, after days of confusion over the policy.
Face coverings in public places where people cannot safely socially distance was already the norm in more than 120 countries, including many in Europe, he said.
And former chief scientific adviser David King said: “Every one of these decisions is coming extraordinarily late – as soon as shops were open to us this should have been put in place.”
Professor Scally urged Mr Gove to make amends by admitting he was in the wrong and by “going out to buy masks for himself and his family”.
“Politicians seem to like to say what’s good for the population as a whole, but then don’t follow that advice themselves,” he said.
“We should be able to look to our politicians as role models, exemplars in the behaviour that we need to control this pandemic and get through it the best we can.”
And Ms Wilson said: “Whilst we wait for this change to come into place, the government should not only be encouraging people to wear face coverings, but leading by example. Michael Gove, it seems, is capable of neither.”
People who fail to comply with the new requirement will risk a fine of up to £100, although the Police Federation warned that would be “nigh-on impossible” to enforce.
George Eustice, the environment secretary, defended the 24 July timetable as necessary “for retailers to put in place measures to encourage people to do this, or potentially even to have some masks themselves if people haven't got one”.