527 politicians snaked through Westminster halls and courtyards, a kilometre-long line waiting an hour for the queue to move. As symbolism goes, the image of last week’s vote for MPs to physically return to parliament was almost too obvious: as hundreds of bodies queued to prevent the resumption of virtual voting during the coronavirus pandemic, the impression was of a government meandering with little idea of where it were going or when it would get there.
The House of Commons is set to return on Tuesday after its recess, but – with the government winning the vote – it was going to be without the remote voting and video participation that were introduced during lockdown.
It meant MPs with disabilities, as well as those with caring responsibilities, who are shielding faced a choice between being disenfranchised and risking their health. Even more worrying for MPs who are also BAME and therefore at added risk.
The backlash was suitably swift. Many shielding MPs have spoken out over the last week, from Liberal Democrat Jamie Stone, who cares for his wife after she had a stroke to Conservative Robert Halfon who is disabled himself and accused the Government of making high risk MPs ‘Parliamentary eunuchs’.
The Shadow Minister for Disabled People Vicky Foxcroft, who herself has low immunity, took legal advice over the government’s allegedly “discriminatory” decision of effectively forcing high risk members out to work.
It isn’t like any of this is an abstract threat: Business Secretary Alok Sharma had to self-isolate due to fears he had coronavirus after beginning to feel unwell in the chamber last week. (He later tested negative.)
In response to mounting pressure, on Friday, it was announced “extremely vulnerable” MPs, as well as carers, will be able to participate virtually if they cannot attend Parliament due to reasons linked to coronavirus. Plans to allow proxy voting will be announced next week.
It is good sense at last but incredible it was such a battle to get here. There was no reason to ban MPs from voting in legislation virtually, not least as the House of Lords is planning a move online. Abandoning a system that was working perfectly well only to risk MP’s health and disenfranchise millions of their constituents was the definition of senseless. Consider the leader of the house, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s original idea was said to be surrounding MPs with plastic screens, with a protective lid on top. The plan was discarded after it emerged it would require an oxygen supply, or MPs could inevitably suffocate.
Failing PM over colleagues‘ lives
It is an embarrassment, with Rees-Mogg clinging to anachronistic ritual at the expense of people’s health. Rumour has it that the Tories’ rush back to Parliament was at least in part due to wanting more cheering bodies behind Boris Johnson at PMQs; he has been noticeably struggling against Keir Starmer in recent weeks without an audience to play off. Others suggest Tory party whips feared they might be less able to control MPs voting from their constituencies – despite the government’s 80-seat majority. Either meant protecting a failing PM over colleagues‘ lives.
The House of Commons is representative in all too literal terms for what’s happening in many workplaces in the U.K., where workers at high risk of coronavirus are simultaneously being told by the government they are so vulnerable they must shield at home whilst being given no legal right to not be forced back out to work. Research by Citizen’s Advice found shielders risk losing up to 60% of their income. Others face the sack or are being pressured to risk their or their loved one’s health by returning to work.
It would not be a stretch to imagine employers watching events in the ‘Commons this week and seeing tacit support for their own lax attitude to protecting their employees’ lives. Shielders, meanwhile, must be having their confidence in the political class further shaken. The very people meant to be leading us through the pandemic have had to be forced into abandoning a pointlessly dangerous policy. Shielders across the country would be forgiven for feeling the government could not care less.
By Frances Ryan