The Government has recently declared that MPs should return to working in Parliament in June.
I am deeply concerned about this decision, which I believe was taken for reasons of optics rather than what is best for the health of MPs and the country at large.
I, as much as anyone, want to get back to Parliament and get back to working as normal, but that should only happen once it is safe to do so, otherwise we risk increasing the spread of the deadly virus even further.
Working away from Parliament and our offices has been challenging. I have been working incredibly hard to help constituents, whether it is working to return people to the UK having being stuck abroad, or successfully campaigning for more financial support for struggling businesses.
But what it has shown is that we, as MPs, are able to work from home. We are able to represent constituents and raise relevant issues. This is partly because a lot of effort, work and redesigning has gone into modernising Parliament so that MPs can work away from the parliamentary estate. Some of the features are excellent and I am sure will stay – like the MembersHub, an online system that allows MPs to vote electronically.
This improvement should mean that we do things differently there should be no need to rush us back to Parliament to go back to old ways. The whole world needs a new normal so why would we be any different? The House of Commons does not even fit all 650 MPs into it. It is designed to be crammed and confrontational – just look at how packed the chamber normally is during Prime Minister’s Questions. Even a half-full chamber would be unsafe and leave us completely unable to practice social distancing.
I am also concerned for the 24 MPs who are over 70 years old, and for all those MPs who may be in a high-risk group due to underlying health conditions. I am not yet convinced that it is safe to send us all back to Parliament with all the back and forth long distance travel that brings for those outside of London, and without a proper plan for social distancing, test, track and trace and at a time when the infection rate – ‘R’ – is close to 1. This is a very risky gamble.
The Government isn’t just being reckless when it comes to Parliamentarians, they are also attempting to reopen schools before the science tells us it is safe. I fear their desire to reopen schools no matter the cost has led to them rushing to reopen Parliament too.
The fact that we are able to work efficiently at home does not mean it is the ideal situation or even desirable. I personally do not think that the current virtual system of debating or scrutiny works particularly well as a hybrid system. It leaves us unable to fully hold this Government to account in everything it is doing, which I find extremely frustrating.
But the answer is not to send 650 MPs back to Parliament to sit in a non-ventilated chamber, even if it is 50 or so of us at a time. I sit on the Science and Technology Committee in Parliament and I know that the science tells us we should be in a well-ventilated work environment and we should spend time in consistent small groups to limit the spread of the virus.
The House of Commons chamber has no windows and unless you are in committee, MPs will be mingling with many other MPs as well as staff on the estate, such as in canteens and libraries. It is just unworkable and unsafe.
I therefore fear that this Government’s ‘non-plan plan’ means we are creating an army of super spreaders.
That is 650 MPs representing literally every part of this country, who risk taking the deadly virus back to their 650 constituencies and even their families when they travel home every week. This potentially exposes every community across the UK to further infection.
Professor Andrew Curran, Chief Scientific Adviser and Director of Research at the Health and Safety Executive, has said that approximately 1 in 400 people have had or has COVID-19 – so how on earth will we know which MP has it? MPs are being placed in an impossible moral quandary.
I want to get back to Parliament as soon as possible and properly hold this frustratingly poor Government to account, but this should not be at the expense of our health the health of the people we represent. The fact is, if you are truly following the science – or even if you follow your own common sense – returning to Parliament and conducting business in the chamber is not sensible.
Parliament, just like schools, should only fully reopen when it is safe to do so.