UK Minister’s Illness Stirs Virtual Parliament Debate
Britain’s business secretary was tested for the coronavirus Thursday and went into self-isolation after sweating through a speech in parliament that reinvigorated a debate on whether lawmakers were ending virtual sessions prematurely.
UK politicians have been fighting for days over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to end remote video conference sessions that began when the virus was still spreading fast in April.
Johnson is trying to coax frightened Britons to start taking their children back to school and resume some semblance of the old way of life because the virus — after officially claiming more than 40,000 lives — is now slowly fading.
But his efforts to get lawmakers back into the House of Commons have run into problems.
Many complained bitterly after having to stand in a long queue that twisted through the halls of parliament in order to take a socially distant vote on Tuesday.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma’s shaky appearance on Wednesday only added to their concern.
The 52-year-old mopped his forehead with a handkerchief and rubbed his face several times while trying to finish a speech at the podium.
Several alarmed lawmakers later noted they had stood in the queue next to him during Tuesday’s vote.
Sharma’s spokeswoman said the minister was “feeling unwell” but did not specify if he had the virus.
“In line with guidance he has been tested for coronavirus and is returning home to self-isolate,” she said.
The House of Commons said a deep cleaning of the chamber has been performed as a precaution.
The main opposition Labour party’s business spokesman Toby Perkins said it was “ridiculous” for Sharma to show up to work sick.
“It was the height of irresponsibility for him to be in parliament sniffling, sweating and snorting from the despatch box,” he added.
Labour’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Lisa Nandy said “reckless doesn’t even begin to describe” the government’s decision to end virtual parliament hearings.
Lawmakers will vote later Thursday on whether to allow those in the high-risk category or aged 70 and over to vote by proxy.
But government minister Brandon Lewis denied that Sharma’s illness supported the opposition’s case for homeworking parliament sessions.
“It is important for parliamentarians to be able to properly scrutinise legislation,” Lewis told the BBC.
A poll by YouGov showed that just 12 percent of UK respondents thought lawmakers should have to vote in person during the health crisis.
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