MPs have been urged to “stay away” from Parliament when it reopens tomorrow. Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said politicians should stay at home rather than risk travelling to Westminster while the country remains in the grip of a Coronavirus lockdown.
Radical plans have been put in place that will allow Parliament to function, with the bulk of members able to grill Ministers remotely. As many as 50 MPs will be allowed to take part in the sessions from the Commons chamber, but Parliament authorities said strict social distancing rules would remain in place, including laying markings to ensure they remain at least six feet six inches apart.
Eight screens are to be set-up in the chamber to allow ministers to take questions remotely, with Sir Lindsay saying those attending in person would have the same access as those sitting “with their laptop or iPad in their kitchen”.
There will also be a “virtual” Prime Ministers Questions.
It comes after a Westminster saw a string of cases of the disease before it shut down last month, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock both testing positive for the virus.
Sir Lindsay said: “I know some colleagues will feel it is their right to be seen to be present, but I would urge them to stay away.
“For every Member who turns up to Parliament, staff have to come in to support them, which goes against everything we are being told to do. I do not want MPs and House staff putting themselves at risk.
“After all, there is no benefit to being here physically. Under this new – and temporary – measure, MPs in the chamber will have no more advantage.”[contfnewc]
Sir Lindsay has been in consultations with Public Health England to draw up plans to check these MPs are “fit and well” before entering the parliamentary estate, and mooted temperature checks.
The Commons will use Zoom to allow 120 MPs to take part in proceedings remotely, while those who continue to attend the Palace of Westminster will obey strict social distancing rules.
Experts from the National Cyber Security Centre have told the Commons authorities the use of Zoom will be appropriate for the hearings as long as the application’s use is carefully managed.
The unprecedented step towards a “hybrid” house was taken by the Commons Commission to keep parliamentary democracy going during the coronavirus crisis.
The plan still needs to be approved by MPs when Parliament returns from the Easter break on April 21.[contfnewc]
The Speaker said: “By initiating a hybrid solution, with steps towards an entirely virtual Parliament, we are enabling members to stay close to their communities, while continuing their important work scrutinising the Government.
“I do not want members and House staff putting themselves at risk.
“By working virtually, this is our contribution to the guidance of stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.”
Former Tory minister Rob Halfon said MPs should “practise what we preach” by making virtual attendance mandatory.
He said: “We should set an example to the nation.
“If we are telling people to stay at home then we should practise what we preach. If we then go into parliament ourselves we are potentially spreading it.”
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg added: “These measures will make it possible for Parliament to continue its work of conducting scrutiny, authorising spending and making laws – all of which are essential to tackling coronavirus.
“I am extremely grateful to Mr Speaker for showing the leadership necessary to make this happen; to the parties, who have worked together constructively to ensure next week’s business will run smoothly with the minimal necessary attendance in Westminster; and to House staff, for working so hard over the Easter break to make these changes technically possible.”
If the new measures are agreed, it will mean from Wednesday April 22 some MPs will be able to take part in Prime Minister’s Questions, any urgent questions and statements via video link for the first two hours of each sitting day.
If the system works, it could be extended at a later date so that MPs can take part in debates on motions and legislation from home.
But it will also be up to MPs to decide on any shift to a system of remote voting.[contfnewc] [contfnewc]