By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY, Oct 28 (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Wednesday described the COVID-19 pandemic as a tough "lady" taskmaster who must be obeyed, but he and most close aides did not wear masks at his general audience.
At the start of the indoor audience Francis apologised to people for not coming down from the marble stage.
"I will stay up here. I would very much like to come down and greet each of you but we have to keep our distances," he said to the crowd of several hundred, nearly all wearing masks.
"If I come down, immediately people will form groups ... and this is against the care, the precautions, we must have in the face of this lady named COVID, who is doing us much harm," he said.
The pope and most aides and translators on the stage did not wear masks. Swiss Guards and official photographers on the stage wore masks but bishops and priests who greeted the pope close up removed their masks as they approached him.
Thirteen Swiss Guards and a resident of the guest house where the pope lives have recently tested positive for COVID-19.
The pope, who had part of one lung removed because of an illness when he was a young man, has come under fire, mostly on social media, for not always wearing a mask in public.
On Oct. 20, he wore a mask for several hours at a prayer service in Rome with other religious leaders, taking it off only when he spoke. Last Saturday, no-one in the pope's private library wore a mask when he spoke with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his delegation.
In a video conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Father Augusto Zampini, a member of a Vatican commission the pope set up to advise him on the social effects of the crisis, acknowledged Francis' inconsistency.
"We are trying to convince him, we are almost there," Zampini said. (Editing by Janet Lawrence)
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