UK Parliament to hold virtual debates amid virus lockdown

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s Parliament went back to work on Tuesday, and the political authorities had a message for lawmakers: Stay away.

United Kingdom (UK) legislators and most parliamentary staff were sent home in late March as part of a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. With more than 17,000 virus-deaths in Britain and criticism growing of the government’s response to the pandemic, legislators are returning — at least virtually — to grapple with the crisis.

House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle presided over an almost-empty chamber, with space made for a maximum of 50 of the 650 members of Parliament. Red “no sitting” signs affixed to the green Commons benches and black-and-yellow hazard tape on the floor ensured lawmakers remained two metres apart.

A few dozen legislators sat, well-spaced, in the Commons, and agreed on arrangements for lawmakers to ask questions from home using videoconferencing programme Zoom, beamed onto screens erected around the wood-panelled chamber.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative lawmaker who serves as leader of the House of Commons, accepted that “the new digital Parliament will not be perfect”.

Handout photo issued by UK Parliament of Chamber rehearsals ahead of the reconvening the House of Commons and House of Lords following the Easter recess, in London. PHOTO: AP

“Members may launch forth into fine perorations only to be muted or snatched away altogether by an unreliable Internet connection,” he said. “Yet we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Hoyle, the Chamber’s Speaker, acknowledged “there are bound to be bumps along the way” as the tradition-steeped 700-year-old institution takes a leap into the unknown. But he urged lawmakers not to travel to Parliament.

“I do not want members and House staff putting themselves at risk,” he said.

The virtual Parliament will have its first big test during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will stand in for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is still recovering from a bout of COVID-19.

Dozens of British lawmakers, advisers, civil servants and journalists have had coronavirus symptoms, likely contracted in the cramped precincts of Parliament and other government buildings.Johnson spent a week in the hospital, including three nights in intensive care, after contracting the virus. The 55-year-old leader is recuperating in the countryside, and there is no word on when he will return to work. He spoke on Tuesday to US President Donald Trump, and told the leader “he is feeling better and on the road to recovery”, the White House said.

Opposition politicians have been largely supportive of the national lockdown that was imposed on March 23 and runs until at least May 7. But political unity has frayed as Britain’s coronavirus death toll mounts.