Last week, Members of Parliament returned to the Palace of Westminster for the first time since lockdown was declared in late March.
For the previous nine weeks, MPs and their staffs had been working from home, dealing with constituents’ concerns over the internet and engaging in seemingly interminable Zoom videoconferences. A “hybrid” Commons was introduced, in which Members largely engaged remotely, though some, chiefly London-based MPs did enter the chamber, their numbers limited to 50 in order to preserve social distancing.
When lockdown restrictions were reduced, the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, decided that MPs should not expect their fellow citizens to return to their workplaces if they themselves did not, that the hybrid arrangements should cease and the Commons should reconvene physically after the Whitsun recess.
So it was that, last Tuesday morning, several hundred MPs returned to Westminster. The place certainly looked and felt very different. For a start, there were far fewer people about. Over 5,000 normally work in the Palace – the population of a small town. However, the Speaker had decreed that Members’ staff should continue to work from home, thereby reducing its population by a few thousand.
Everywhere were notices reminding us to maintain social distancing, not to dally in the corridors and to keep washing our hands. The restrictions on numbers in the chamber were unchanged, with most Members watching Prime Minister’s Questions on their office monitors. Committees were still held remotely, using Zoom.
The handling of divisions caused some controversy, reflected in the now-notorious pictures of the “conga line” of MPs queueing up to cast their votes. Each division took 45 minutes – three times the usual length. Members made their disquiet known, and it is expected that a swipe card system will be introduced very shortly. Arrangements are also being made to provide for older Members and those with adverse health conditions to participate remotely in scrutiny proceedings.
There is much general discussion of the need to become used to the “new normal” after lockdown restrictions are lifted. If MPs’ experience is anything to go by, that process may take some time.