April 16, 2020 / 2:04 PM / 2 months ago

Questioning by Zoom, welcome to Britain's new 'hybrid' parliament

LONDON (Reuters) - Lawmakers will quiz ministers via videolink next week as part of moves to make Britain’s centuries-old House of Commons a “hybrid” parliament to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

FILE PHOTO: The statue of Britain's former Prime Minister Winston Churchill is silhouetted in front of the Houses of Parliament in London January 24, 2015. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor/File Photo

The House of Commons Commission, which includes the Speaker, government and opposition representatives, agreed up to 120 lawmakers at any one time could take part in parliamentary proceedings via Zoom, while around 50 could remain in the chamber under social distancing guidelines.

The measures, which need the approval of lawmakers when they return on April 21, could see a pause on often rowdy sessions in parliament, where even the architecture of seating government and opposition parties opposite each other encourages confrontation.

“By initiating a hybrid solution, with steps towards an entirely virtual parliament, we are enabling members to stay close to their communities while continuing their important work scrutinising the government,” said speaker Lindsay Hoyle, who chairs the Commission.

The government asked parliament to start its Easter break a week early last month, suspending sitting for at least four weeks as fears grew that politicians and staff were being put at risk from the spread of COVID-19 by continuing to work there.

Several lawmakers and ministers have since either tested positive for the virus or self-isolated with symptoms, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson who is now recuperating at his country residence.

But opposition parties have called for parliament to return as soon as possible so that they can question ministers over the government’s handling of the outbreak, which has killed more than 12,000 people in hospital.

If the “hybrid parliament” measures are approved, some lawmakers will be able to take part in Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, ask urgent questions and make points by videolink in the first two hours of each day.

Screens will be placed around the chamber to allow the Speaker and lawmakers in the chamber to see their “virtual” colleagues, who are expected not to display or draw attention to objects to illustrate the points they are making.

For those who have technical difficulties, the Commission said: “It should be possible for them to be called later in the proceedings.”

If deemed successful, the House of Commons will consider extending the model to other debates.

Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; editing by Stephen Addison

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