British lawmakers attended Parliament online for the first time on Wednesday as social distancing rules meant the usually crowded House of Commons was kept as empty as possible.
Since the days of Winston Churchill, MPs have been offered fixed time slots to toast the Prime Minister in Parliament, but the coronavirus lockdown meant this week’s session was held online.
The famous green benches debate was moved for the first time since the Blitz as MPs checked into the chamber via Zoom US: ZOOM.
A few, observing social distancing rules, were still attending in person. Members of the upper house, the House of Lords, use Microsoft MSFT,
It’s a crowded House of Commons in 1940 that heard Churchill say ‘We’ll fight them on the beaches’, and the same building in 1990 where Margaret Thatcher said ‘No, no, no’ to greater control of the EU.
But on Wednesday, Sir Keir Starmer, the new leader of Labor – Britain’s opposition party – was one of less than 50 present to question interim Prime Minister Dominic Raab. Up to 120 others posed questions to ministers through large-screen televisions set up in the chamber.
“I welcome everyone…to the first hybrid sitting of the House of Commons,” Speaker of the House Sir Lindsay Hoyle said as he opened the session.
The members showed off a range of backgrounds, including bookshelves, bare walls, and a collection of signed soccer balls. Some fell behind, and the usual house boos and cheers were absent, but overall the session went well.
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House of Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg praised the adaptation, saying on Twitter TWR,
: “The Black Death in 1349 stopped Parliament from sitting but thanks to technology and Mr President, we will not be prevented from returning in a slightly different form.”
The UK followed Wales, which would be the first country to host a virtual parliament.
New Zealand had been the pioneer of Zoom. But a party leader in New Zealand said “Zoom won’t be enough” as the country plans to return to in-person proceedings. The chambers of the US Congress are still hosting 530 members, some of whom have already tested positive for the virus.
Screens on which British politicians have appeared line the walls of the chamber, while tape marks the floor where MPs can stand at a safe distance from each other and seats are marked with ticks or crosses indicating to members where they can sit.
Meanwhile, Lords members are normally entitled to up to £313 ($380) tax-free to connect at home, which is intended to help with travel costs. Some Lords, many of whom are elderly and therefore deemed vulnerable, are demanding that expenses be paid even to those who attend virtual sittings, according to media reports.
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The chamber of the House of Commons is designed for opposing sides to engage in heated debate. But with limited sessions, reduced attendance and members spread across more than 100 living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, the temperature of the debate has cooled and will likely remain so until the coronavirus crisis subsides and Parliament can return to its offline origins.