UK prepares for virtual parliament after coronavirus shuts down public life

Digital sessions to change the look and feel of proceedings in British parliament

Pedestrians cross Westminster Bridge in view of the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K., on Thursday, April 9, 2020. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent a third night in the critical care unit where his condition is improving, as officials draw up plans to extend the lockdown in an bid to control the U.K.’s growing coronavirus crisis. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

It will not be so much order, order as press to unmute as the British parliament sits virtually for the first time in its 700-year history on Tuesday.

Some MPs will sit on the green seats of the chamber while others will join in on Zoom video conferencing app under what has been described as a “hybrid” system.

Only 50 MPs will be allowed inside the House of Commons at a time under strict social distancing rules with Speaker Lindsay Hoyle who will be orchestrating proceedings on screens.

Parliament, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, will only sit three days a week under the new arrangement.

And while Prime Ministers Questions, Ministerial Questions and other functions of parliament are to continue as normally as possible, Westminster is expected to lose some of its knock-about theatrics as it moves into the virtual realm.

Quick interventions and supplementary questions, part of the normal drama of the house which give spontaneity to proceedings, will be impossible because of all of the planning needed to hold the virtual sessions.

Crucially, it is yet to be agreed upon as to how members will carry out their principal function of voting. Famously resistant to technology, in the past British parliament has eschewed digital voting in any form and members have always had to vote in person or by proxy.

Already the e-format for parliament has been trialled in committee hearings. On Friday, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock faced the first video conference Health Select Committee as he was grilled by MPs from their homes.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is expected to field the first virtual Prime Ministers Questions on Wednesday as Boris Johnson continues to rest during his recovery from his own illness with the coronavirus.

After being discharged from hospital over one week ago, Mr Johnson has been receiving daily updates on the UK’s covid-19 response. However, he has not returned to his duties as prime minister.

In parliament, the government faces serious questions over its handling of the virus, including its procurement of personal protective equipment for health workers.

The country’s new opposition leader Keir Starmer, from the centre-left Labour Party, is expected to press Mr Johnson’s administration for answers on its handling of the public health crisis.

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