Britain’s Parliament is going back to work, and the political authorities have a message for lawmakers: Stay away.
U.K. 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 16,500 virus-deaths in Britain and criticism growing of the government’s response to the pandemic, legislators are returning Tuesday — at least virtually — to grapple with the crisis.
House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle plans to preside over an almost-empty chamber, with space being made for a maximum of 50 of the 650 members of Parliament. Other lawmakers can ask questions from home using videoconferencing program Zoom, beamed onto screens erected around the wood-paneled Commons chamber.
Hoyle 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,” Hoyle said.
A small number of legislators will meet in person Tuesday to approve the new digital arrangements. Tape has been put on the floor to ensure they keep 2 meters (6.5 feet) apart.
The virtual Parliament will have its first big best Wednesday 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 COVID-19.
Lawmakers’ return to work comes amid mounting criticism of the government’s response to the pandemic, heightened by the absence of the prime minister. Johnson spent a week in the hospital this month, including three nights in intensive care, after contracting the coronavirus.
Opposition politicians have been largely supportive of the national lockdown that was imposed March 23 and extended last week until at least May 7. But political unity has frayed as Britain’s coronavirus death toll mounts.
Opponents are attacking the government over a lack of testing for the virus, shortages of protective equipment for medics and an elusive strategy for ending the lockdown.
The government says it is too soon to consider easing the restrictions. But it acknowledges that widespread testing — so that infected people can be identified and their contacts traced and isolated — will be a key part of ending the lockdown. The number of tests being performed has grown from about 5,000 to near 20,000 a day — still a long way off the government’s promise of hitting 100,000 a day by the end of April.
Countries around the world are grappling with how to conduct politics during the pandemic. The U.S. Congress has postponed its return until May, while Canadian lawmakers have agreed to a mix of digital and in-person sittings starting next week.
It’s unclear how fully British lawmakers will be able to scrutinize the Conservative government under the new digital arrangements. Not everything can be done from a distance. Approving legislation is on hold because there is not yet a way for lawmakers to vote. In the House of Commons, that is done by the time-honored and time-consuming method of having legislators traipse out of the Commons chamber and walk through “yes” or “no” lobbies.
Hoyle said Commons authorities are “urgently” seeking a way that voting can be done remotely.
The pandemic has already upended everyday activity in the cramped, crumbling parliamentary complex, where several thousand people work, served by multiple bars and restaurants, a post office and a hairdresser. Even before parliamentarians were sent home on March 25, Hoyle had suspended the sale of alcohol on the premises, to encourage staff not to linger.
The virtual arrangements are likely to curb Parliament’s spontaneity and subdue its often raucous atmosphere. 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.” But he said “we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
And, he added, things have been worse.
Meg Russell, director of the Constitution Unit at University College London, said the new arrangements were “unique and unprecedented.” But she said politics would be more difficult without “face to face and informal contact.”
“Politics is a lot more consultative than people think,” she said. “Informal conversations and things which go on out of the public eye are really crucial to the way that Parliament runs.”
“With everybody dispersed all around the country, it’s really difficult for anybody to get a sense of the mood,” she added.