LONDON (AP) – Britainâ€™s 650 lawmakers are grappling with a question familiar to millions of their compatriots: When is it safe to go back to work?
Members of Parliament, who have largely been working from home while the coronavirus swept Britain, were summoned back to the office on Tuesday – and many weren’t happy. They say the governmentâ€™s decision to scrap a remote-voting system used during the pandemic will turn those who must stay home because of age, illness or family issues into second-class lawmakers.
â€œI 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.
â€œWe should be holding the government to account. We canâ€™t if we donâ€™t have the right to vote,” she said.
After Britain went into lockdown in late March, Parliament adopted a historic â€œhybridâ€ 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 governmentâ€™s leader of the House, said lawmakers should be setting an example by showing up in person as the country gets back to work.
â€œThe virtual Parliament brought us through the peak of the pandemic but it is no longer necessary to make the compromises it demanded. We can do so much better,â€ he wrote in a parliamentary magazine.
The governmentâ€™s opponents argue that itâ€™s too early and too risky to return to Parliament.
â€œAsking people to travel from all corners of the U.K. to go to the global hotspot that is London … is gambling with the virus,â€ said Scottish National Party lawmaker Angus MacNeil, whose Hebridean island constituency is almost as far from London as itâ€™s possible to get in the U.K. â€œJacob Rees-Mogg is setting the wrong example.â€
Britain has had Europeâ€™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 â€œa COVID-secure workplace,â€ 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 â€œyesâ€ or â€œnoâ€ lobbies, is unsafe because it’ll be impossible to maintain social distancing.
So on Tuesday lawmakers will form a 1 kilometer (more than half a mile) queue snaking through the labyrinthine Parliament building before walking through the Commons chamber one by one to register their votes. Critics dubbed the unwieldy method a â€œconga-line Parliament.â€
Opposition politicians, and some government lawmakers, are pressing to keep electronic voting. They accuse the Conservative administration of hustling lawmakers back to Parliament so that Johnson will have a supportive chorus during his weekly Commons question session.
They say abandoning remote votes will silence those who have to remain at home due to age, health conditions or childcare demands — many British children have yet to return to school.
The Commonsâ€™ move comes as Parliamentâ€™s upper chamber, the House of Lords, puts 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 â€œharsh and unbending.â€
â€œThe MPs who genuinely cannot come in, our democratic rights are being snipped away and weâ€™re being turned into parliamentary eunuchs,” he said.
Halfon likened the government’s attitude to that of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro â€œthat COVID is just the sniffles and, if you canâ€™t come in, tough luck, we donâ€™t care. And that to me is entirely wrong.â€
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