UK to set up virtual parliament during coronavirus shutdown

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Speaker had requested move to allow MPs to scrutinise governments response to crisis

The government is to set up a virtual parliament to allow MPs to scrutinise its response to the coronavirus crisis following demands from the Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, and opposition parties.

The move was announced on Wednesday night amid mounting concerns that the government has failed to get a grip on the crisis, with claims that health workers lives are at risk because of a lack of protective equipment and a shortage of tests for the virus.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, announced the move in a statement that said the government and parliament hoped appropriate technology would be in place by 21 April, when MPs are due to return to Westminster.

He said: Parliaments role of scrutinising government, authorising spending and making laws must be fulfilled and in these unprecedented times that means considering every technological solution available. We are exploring options with the parliamentary authorities in readiness for parliaments return.

Quick guide

What are coronavirus symptoms and should I go to a doctor?

What is Covid-19?

It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals.

What are the symptoms this coronavirus causes?

The virus can cause pneumonia-like symptoms. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties.

In the UK, the National Heath Service has defined the symptoms as:

  • a high temperature – you feel hot to touch on your chest or back
  • a new continuous cough – this means you’ve started coughing repeatedly
Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

Medical advice varies around the world – with many countries imposing travel bans and lockdowns to try and prevent the spread of the virus. In many place people are being told to stay at home rather than visit a doctor of hospital in person. Check with your local authorities.

In the UK, NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days. If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

How many people have been affected?

Chinas national health commission confirmed human-to-human transmission in January. As of 31 March, more than 780,000 people have been infected in more than 170 countries, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

There have been over 37,800 deaths globally. Just over 3,200 of those deaths have occurred in mainland China. Italy has been worst affected, with over 11,500 fatalities, and there have been over 7,700 deaths in Spain. The US now has more confirmed cases than any other country – more than 164,000. Many of those who have died had underlying health conditions, which the coronavirus complicated.

More than 166,000 people are recorded as having recovered from the coronavirus.

A source said the plan would be in place by the end of the month. There have been calls from across the political spectrum for MPs to be allowed to scrutinise the government remotely at a time of enormous social upheaval and as freedom of movement is being curtailed by new laws to encourage physical distancing and self-isolation.

The government came under pressure to set up a virtual parliament after an unusual intervention by Hoyle on Wednesday. In a letter to Rees-Mogg, the Speaker said MPs should still be able to take part in prime ministers questions, and put questions to government departments and ministers even if they could not return to Westminster as scheduled on 21 April.

Hoyle argued that a trial of virtual select committee hearings had already been successful and he had asked officials to investigate how they would apply similar technology for use in the Commons chamber.

Hoyle wrote: Once the house returns, if we are still in the grip of the crisis where the physical presence of members, or too many members, in the palace is not appropriate, I am keen that they should be able to participate in key parliamentary proceedings virtually, for example oral questions, urgent questions, statements.

The House Service has already trialled some virtual select committee evidence sessions with witnesses, and I have asked officials to investigate how they would apply similar technology to the types of business listed above.

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