Coronavirus: ‘Virtual parliament’ takes shape as MPs return from Easter recess

A “virtual parliament” is being set up for MPs this week to protect them while they work during the coronavirus crisis. 

Unprecedented changes to the main House of Commons chamber designed more than 300 years ago will be rolled out to let politicians tune into statements and question sessions via videolink.

Up to 120 MPs will be able to quiz ministers on Zoom, while a maximum of 50 will be allowed into the main debating room itself.

Measures to be introduced include large screens lining the chamber walls, hazard tape marking safe social distances and the usual prayer card holders filled with ticks and no entry signs telling politicians where they can and cannot sit.

Only about two hours of proceedings will be held this way, with the rest happening with the slimmed down number of MPs permitted to attend in person.

Sitting days are also being scaled back so business will only happen on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plans were cooked up by Commons authorities to help MPs continue to press the government on behalf of their constituents while still encouraging the public to stay at home.

They will have to be confirmed when parliament reconvenes on Tuesday afternoon and will likely come into effect on Wednesday – in time for Prime Minister’s Questions fronted by Dominic Raab.

The foreign secretary is standing in for Boris Johnson while he recovers from coronavirus at the countryside retreat of Chequers.

Commons votes will still take place in the usual way for now – meaning MPs have to walk through one of two halls to register if they are supporting or opposing a motion.

But officials say they are working on a “secure system” that could see remote voting introduced – something some modernisers who think MPs who are ill or on parent leave should be able to use.

The ceremonial mace – which is carried into the Commons chamber every day and dates from the reign of Charles II symbolising the monarch’s authority for MPs to pass laws, will remain present.

Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle will oversee business and tell MPs to let him know in advance if they want to speak, with their names drawn at random.

He said: “Our new virtual parliament means that MPs are playing the fullest part in the national effort to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.”

MPs joining remotely have been told to wear “appropriate” clothing and be “careful” about what is in the background of their screens, prompting sports minister Tracey Crouch to joke: “I’m totally going to sit in my football shorts with a nice suit jacket combo. They’ll never know!”

Photos of a trial run attended by MPs including Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg were taken by parliament’s official photographer and released on Monday.

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