LONDON (AP) — Britain’s 650 lawmakers are grappling with a question familiar to millions of their compatriots: When is it safe to go back to work?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government faced a rebellion from some of its own legislators on Tuesday after it summoned Members of Parliament back to London and prepared to scrap a remote-voting system used during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown.
With many restrictions on daily life still in place, legislators said ending the "virtual Parliament" before the outbreak was over would turn those who must stay home because of age, illness or family issues into second-class lawmakers.
“I feel both discriminated against and disenfranchised," said opposition Labour Party lawmaker Margaret Hodge, who like many over-70s, is considered especially vulnerable to the virus.
“We should be holding the government to account. We can’t if we don’t have the right to vote," she said.
After Britain went into lockdown in late March, Parliament adopted a historic “hybrid” way of working. Only 50 lawmakers at a time were allowed into the House of Commons, while screens were erected around the chamber so others could join debates over Zoom. Votes were held electronically for the first time in centuries of parliamentary history.
But when the House resumed work Tuesday after an 11-day spring recess, the government was asking lawmakers to end the brief experiment with virtual voting.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the government’s leader of the House, said lawmakers should be setting an example by showing up in person as the country gets back to work.
“We need to have a proper full-blooded democracy … and that’s what we are getting," he told lawmakers.
The government’s opponents argue that it’s too early and too risky to return to Parliament.
“Asking people to travel from all corners of the U.K. to go to the global hotspot that is London ... is gambling with the virus,” said Scottish National Party lawmaker Angus MacNeil, whose Hebridean island constituency is almost as far from London as it’s possible to get in the U.K. “Jacob Rees-Mogg is setting the wrong example.”
Britain has had Europe’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak, with more than 39,000 confirmed deaths. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government is gradually easing the nationwide lockdown, but authorities warn that progress is fragile, and too swift a relaxation could trigger a second wave of infections.
Millions of people classed as vulnerable — because of age or underlying health conditions — are still being told to avoid almost all contact with others. The government says everyone else should meet only in small groups while maintaining social distancing, and work from home if they can.
Rees-Mogg said Parliament will become “a COVID-secure workplace,” with hand sanitizer dispensers and floor markings to help enforce social distancing.
But Parliamentary authorities have major concerns. With its crammed chamber and warren of corridors, Parliament was fertile soil for the virus when the outbreak began. Multiple staff and lawmakers fell ill, including Johnson, who ended up in intensive care.
House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle has said he worries about infection. He also has ruled that the traditional method of voting, in which lawmakers crowd into separate “yes” or “no” lobbies, is unsafe because it'll be impossible to maintain social distancing.
So on Tuesday lawmakers formed a socially distanced line snaking through the labyrinthine Parliament building before walking through the Commons chamber one by one to register their votes. Some critics dubbed the unwieldy method a “conga-line Parliament"; others compared it to children filing into class on the first day of school.
Faced with mounting opposition, the government offered a partial compromise. Rees-Mogg said that lawmakers who have to stay home for health reasons would be able to ask questions and participate in debates remotely — but not vote.
The Commons’ move came as Parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, put the finishing touches to a system that will allow its members, whose average age is 70, to vote with their phone.
Conservative lawmaker Robert Halfon, who has cerebral palsy, said the authorities were being “harsh and unbending.”
“The MPs who genuinely cannot come in, our democratic rights are being snipped away and we’re being turned into parliamentary eunuchs," he said.
Halfon likened the government's attitude to that of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro “that COVID is just the sniffles and, if you can’t come in, tough luck, we don’t care. And that to me is entirely wrong.”
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