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U.K. Parliament to hold virtual debates amid virus lockdown

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s Parliament went back to work Tuesday, and the political authorities had a message for lawmakers: Stay away.

U.K. legislators and most parliamentary staff were sent home in late March as part of a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. With more than 17,000 virus-deaths in Britain and criticism growing of the government’s response to the pandemic, legislators are returning — at least virtually — to grapple with the crisis.

House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle presided over an almost-empty chamber, with space made for a maximum of 50 of the 650 members of Parliament. Red “no sitting” signs affixed to the green Commons benches and black-and-yellow hazard tape on the floor ensured lawmakers remained 2 meters (6.5 feet) apart.

A few dozen legislators sat, well-spaced, in the Commons, and agreed on arrangements for lawmakers to ask questions from home using videoconferencing program Zoom, beamed onto screens erected around the wood-paneled chamber.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative lawmaker who serves as leader of the House of Commons, accepted that “the new digital Parliament will not be perfect.”

“Members may launch forth into fine perorations only to be muted or snatched away altogether by an unreliable internet connection,” he said. “Yet we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Hoyle, the chamber’s speaker, acknowledged “there are bound to be bumps along the way” as the tradition-steeped 700-year-old institution takes a leap into the unknown. But he urged lawmakers not to travel to Parliament.

“I do not want members and House staff putting themselves at risk,” he said.

READ MORE: U.K. government extends virus lockdown by at least 3 weeks

The virtual Parliament will have its first big test Wednesday during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will stand in for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is still recovering from a bout of COVID-19.

Dozens of British lawmakers, advisers, civil servants and journalists have had coronavirus symptoms, likely contracted in the cramped precincts of Parliament and other government buildings.

Johnson spent a week in the hospital, including three nights in intensive care, after contracting the virus. The 55-year-old leader is recuperating in the countryside, and there is no word on when he will return to work. He spoke Tuesday to President Donald Trump, and told the U.S. leader “he is feeling better and on the road to recovery,” the White House said.

Opposition politicians have been largely supportive of the national lockdown that was imposed on March 23 and runs until at least May 7. But political unity has frayed as Britain’s coronavirus death toll mounts.

As of Tuesday, more than 17,000 people with the coronavirus had died in British hospitals, and separate statistics revealed more than 1,500 additional virus deaths took place outside hospitals up to April 10.

Opponents are attacking Johnson’s Conservative government over a lack of testing for the virus, shortages of protective equipment for medical workers and an elusive strategy for ending the lockdown.

The government says it is too soon to consider easing the restrictions. But it acknowledges that widespread testing — so that infected people can be identified and their contacts traced and isolated — will play a key part. The number of tests being performed has grown from 5,000 to near 20,000 a day — still a long way off the government’s promise of hitting 100,000 a day by April 30.

Britain is not the only country grappling with how to conduct politics during the pandemic. Legislatures in France and Italy are working on reduced schedules, while lawmakers continue to meet in Germany and Poland with social distancing measures. The U.S. Congress postponed its return until May, while Canadian lawmakers agreed to a mix of digital and in-person sittings starting next week.

READ MORE: More than 1 million European cases of virus

In Lebanon, lawmakers convened Tuesday for the first time in more than a month, meeting inside a cavernous Beirut theater so they could practice social distancing. As lawmakers wearing face masks arrived at the theater, white uniformed paramedics sprayed them with disinfectant before they entered one at a time.

It’s unclear how fully British lawmakers will be able to scrutinize the government under the new digital arrangements. Approving legislation is on hold because there’s no way yet for lawmakers to vote. In the House of Commons, that’s done by the time-honored, time-consuming method of having legislators traipse out of the Commons and walk through “yes” or “no” lobbies.

Hoyle said authorities are “urgently” seeking a way that voting can be done remotely.

The pandemic has already upended everyday activity in the cramped, crumbling parliamentary complex, where several thousand people work, served by bars and restaurants, a post office and even a hairdresser. Even before parliamentarians were sent home March 25, Hoyle had suspended alcohol sales on the premises, to encourage staff not to linger.

The virtual arrangements are likely to curb Parliament’s spontaneity and subdue its often raucous atmosphere.

Meg Russell, director of the Constitution Unit at University College London, said the new arrangements were “unique and unprecedented.” But she said politics would be more difficult without “face-to-face and informal contact.”

“Politics is a lot more consultative than people think,” she said. “Informal conversations and things which go on out of the public eye are really crucial to the way that Parliament runs.”