Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
A couple of weeks ago, a number of MPs fielded calls to close down parliament, which would see MPs working from home in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. At the time, it seemed as though this was a bit far-fetched; many felt parliament should stay open to offer an image of solidarity at a time of uncertainty.
The initial arguments laid down by those MPs were, with hindsight, perhaps for the best. Not only do MPs work in and around Westminster, cramming themselves into the chamber each day to hear points of order, but they travel to their constituencies too. As schools are a hive of passed-on infection, so too it seems, are the Houses of Parliament. Upon the news that Health Minister, Nadine Dorries had fallen ill with the virus, steps should have been taken.
While Dorries has recovered, the government is now faced with a different beast altogether. Both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health have since fallen ill with coronavirus, forcing them both to self-isolate for the next seven to 14 days. It was only a matter of time before the virus reached the government.
The Houses of Parliament should have been closed or at least limited from their usual day-to-day function from the moment the crisis started to escalate. There is certainly an argument that this could have caused panic. However, perhaps if it was done in a considered and measured way, with MPs publicising that they would remain accessible via remote means such as video call or via email, then worry would have been easily navigated. The technology is definitely there for business to be conducted in as efficient a manner as possible. Working remotely is not out of the question when it comes to politics.
However, parliament remained open, with MPs piling into the chamber for PMQs only shortly after the announcement of Dorries illness. This is not to blame Dorries, any of the 650 MPs in the House could have been, and probably were, carrying the disease. However, the palpability of her symptoms should have been a warning sign for MPs from across the Commons that now is the time to work from home.
The problem we are faced with in the current instance is a government – including advisors such as the Chief Medical Officer – at risk of being incapacitated by Covid-19. While replacements are in order – the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab has been primed as Johnson’s deputy – this detracts for the need for strong leadership at such a moment. Normality for normality’s sake is far from the line which is being offered to the public at the moment. Parliament should have set an example that this was not the case.
Still, perhaps this will be an opportunity for the Houses of Parliament as a whole. The building itself is in need of various repairs and is a continual fire hazard. If remote working proves a success across the House, then there would be no reason for MPs to continue to delay a process for which there is such an urgent need. For now, let’s hope for the Prime Minister’s speedy recovery. At the present moment, consistency in government must be key.