UK Parliament to hold virtual debates amid virus lockdown

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UK Parliament

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 Monday April 20, 2020. Britains 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 people dead and criticism growing of the governments response to the pandemic, legislators are returning Tuesday at least virtually to grapple with the crisis. (Jessica Taylor, UK Parliement via AP)

LONDON – Britain’s Parliament went back to work Tuesday, and the political authorities had 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 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 2 meters (6.5 feet) apart.

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

“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.