LONDON — MPs and peers are determined to carry on with the show — but with coronavirus spreading across the parliamentary estate, Westminster is quietly emptying.
At first glance nothing has changed, with some committee hearings and sessions in the main chambers of the House of Commons and House of Lords continuing as normal. Attendance figures in the House of Lords, where the average age of the membership is 70, showed no unusual pattern of decline last week, according to House authorities, and 315 members of the House of Lords still turned up on Monday.
MPs sat shoulder-to-shoulder on Monday night as Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned the general public to avoid “non-essential” travel and contact with others to curb coronavirus. Two of parliament’s bars — Strangers and the Woolsack — remained open for business, even after the prime minister warned the population earlier Monday to avoid bars and restaurants.
In the House of Commons Hancock acknowledged parliament “may have to operate differently” but said the House must be sure in its collective decision that “it must remain open.”
It was only late on Monday night that the authorities announced all visitor access to the parliamentary estate will stop on Tuesday. MPs, peers and parliamentary staff, however, will continue to be able to work on the estate where necessary.
A number of MPs have announced they are suffering from the coronavirus.
But some support staff said the move has not come quickly enough given the spread of the disease, and warn that leaving the decision about whether employees can work from home down to individual MPs has led to confusion.
Many have already voted with their feet and began working from home this week, as a number of MPs have announced they are suffering from the disease or self-isolating as a precaution. Two have tested positive for the disease, with others showing symptoms of COVID-19 in the last few days.
Staffers home working
Three staffers, who have opted to work from home and spoke to POLITICO on condition on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak by their MPs, raised concerns about the lack of clear guidance. All the staffers raised concerns colleagues might be feeling the pressure to come to the parliamentary estate unless their MP was proactively suggesting they work from home.
“Clearly there is an outbreak on the site, it’s appalling,” one of the staffers said. “Many staff feel that if it was any other workplace it would have been shut down by now given the amount of people with symptoms.”
“It seems a terrible way to fight an epidemic,” a second staffer added.
The third pointed out that a lot of MPs’ office work could be done from home with staff able to access emails and redirect phone lines.
“There is just a feeling that a lot of people have it [on the estate] but with the lack of testing it is hard to tell. Nobody thinks [Health Minister] Nadine Dorries [one of those who tested positive for the disease] and her staff are the only ones.”
A House of Commons spokesperson said on Monday the issue of home working was a matter for individual members of parliament to agree with their offices. There were no figures showing the scale of home working, but one of the staffers said they did not think it was a majority, even early this week.
“The Parliamentary Digital Service provides a range of software and equipment that can be accessed from off the Parliamentary Estate but it is for individual Members of Parliament to agree remote working practices with their offices,” the House of Commons spokesperson added.
Conservative MP Giles Watling, who is self-isolating after running a temperature on Sunday, thinks the advice has worked so far. His office staff are also working from home as a precaution.
“I think the very fact that MPs are self isolating as and when they get symptoms shows that the current practices are working,” he said.
The trade union Unite has urged MPs to allow staff to work from home.
“MPs have a responsibility to pass important legislation in the coming days to prepare the country for what lies ahead, but parliament as a workplace has a responsibility to all who work there to act in their interests and to protect them from any unnecessary risk,” a spokesperson for the Unite parliamentary branch said.
“We hope that every MP encourages every staff member to work remotely where possible, to protect themselves and other members of the parliamentary community, particularly those who are vulnerable and who have caring responsibilities,” the spokesperson added.
The new measures may not be the last adjustment to deal with the pandemic. A memo from the clerk of the House of Commons published on Monday night suggested that new rules could allow laws to be passed with few MPs in attendance. Parliamentary standing orders could be rewritten to remove the requirement for 40 MPs to be present for a vote.
Karen Bradley, chair of parliament’s procedure committee, which scrutinizes such plans, said in a statement issued late on Monday night: “As a precautionary measure, the Committee has been in discussion with the Clerk of the House and other senior House officials. We are examining the appropriate and responsible steps to take to ensure that the core work of the House continues in a responsible manner.”