A suspected case of the new coronavirus in the House of Commons has riled up British opposition lawmakers, who questioned the return of physical voting after remote voting was scrapped.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma appeared uneasy and to be sweating during a Wednesday debate on a corporate insolvency and governance bill in the Commons.
The minister, who was seen sniffing and wiping his face with a handkerchief during the speech, has been tested for coronavirus and has returned home to await the results.
Parliamentary authorities said they gave “additional cleaning” to the area where Sharma was speaking.
Why are the MPs voting in person again?
On the eve of the incident, lawmakers approved the government’s motion to end virtual voting that required them to vote in person. The 650 members of parliament had largely been working from home during the pandemic under a temporarily “hybrid” system, but the government decided to end the experiment as it started lifting social distancing guidelines.
The motion, proposed by Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, passed by 261 votes to 163 and led to lengthy queues in the Commons estate. Some accused the government of acting irresponsibly and putting Parliament staff and lawmakers themselves at risk.
What was the reaction to Sharma’s case?
Alok Sharma’s woes have led to backlash from the opposition and to renewed calls to bring digital voting back.
Labour Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy said that if Sharma tests positive, the MPs “will have gone back into the community and potentially taken the virus with them. Which is why the representation to Jacob Rees-Mogg was so serious, and it’s bizarre and dangerous that they were ignored.”
Labour MP John McDonnell tweeted: “This confirms that lives of both staff & MPs are being put at risk in Parliament. It was an irresponsible decision by Rees Mogg & Johnson to force open Parliament. It must now revert to lockdown & online operation.”
Kirsty Blackman, the SNP’s Westminster deputy leader, said the situation shows “just how ridiculous and irresponsible the Tory government’s decision to end virtual participation in parliament was”. She called on No. 10 to “reintroduce hybrid proceedings without delay”.
“This demonstrates just how ridiculous and irresponsible the Tory government’s decision to end virtual participation in Parliament was.— Tom French (@tomfrench85) June 3, 2020
"They must now rectify this serious mistake and reintroduce hybrid proceedings without delay."
SNP's @KirstySNP on reports about Alok Sharma pic.twitter.com/gOosTzQQEh
Liberal Democrat MP Daisy Cooper demanded that Rees-Mogg resign for “bringing the House into disrepute, and needlessly putting lives at risk.”
Ed Davey, acting leader of the party, supported the call.
Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis denied that Sharma’s case bolstered the argument for return to a “hybrid parliament”.
“I don’t want to be premature because Alok, who I wish well and hope he recovers quickly, may well have had severe hayfever, we’re not sure yet,” he told BBC Radio 4.
“It is important for parliamentarians to be able to properly scrutinise legislation, not just for Covid but for the wider legislative agenda we have to continue with for people across the country, but to do so within proper guidelines.
“That's what the House authorities have set up, that's what's been working over the last few days and that's a very good thing”, he added.