A UK government minister has been tested for the coronavirus and is self-isolating after he was seen sweating in the House of Commons chamber.Business Secretary Alok Sharma repeatedly wiped his head and nose with a handkerchief and held his forehead as he made a speech on Wednesday, raising questions over whether the UK government was right to require its lawmakers return to Parliament while the number of new coronavirus infections remains high.The House of Commons had been operating on a hybrid basis in recent weeks, with a restricted number of MPs allowed in the chamber and others permitted to take part and vote from home. But in a move led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons and a traditionalist Conservative MP, the government used its parliamentary majority to end that arrangement earlier this week.MPs were forced to return to Westminster if they wanted to debate and vote on legislation. But House of Commons authorities insisted that social distancing rules be maintained, meaning lawmakers had to join a huge line in order to vote in the traditional manner of passing through booths as tellers tick off their names.Images shared by MPs on social media show the chaos that ensued. Opposition Labour MP Ben Bradshaw shared photos of lawmakers crammed onto an escalator who “crashed into the back of the voting queue and could neither go forward or back.” He added: “Rees-Mogg passed during this crush and I told him he was a disgrace.”
A House of Commons Procedure Committee report published on May 30 warned the government’s decision to recall the House of Commons to Westminster with a socially-distanced system had “significant deficiencies.” The committee’s report said it has “serious concerns about how it would work in practice” and proposed that “remote voting should continue for a time-limited period, with members who want to be able to vote in person having their votes recorded in the chamber.”However, in an article for the Politics Home website on Monday, Rees-Mogg wrote: “What is going to change is the quality of scrutiny. The virtual Parliament brought us through the peak of the pandemic but it is no longer necessary to make the compromises it demanded. We can do so much better.”On Tuesday, following the first sitting after the virtual arrangements were dropped, he tweeted: “Today has shown how much more effective a proper Parliament as opposed to an imitation one is at holding the government to account.” But Sharma’s unsettling appearance on Wednesday may cast doubt on the wisdom of forcing lawmakers into a confined space.
Downing Street said that if Sharma tests positive, Prime Minister Boris Johnson may be forced to self-isolate. The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said Johnson and finance minister Rishi Sunak held a 45-minute meeting on the economy with Sharma on Tuesday. Social distancing rules were maintained, the spokesperson said.Other lawmakers who he had sustained contact with the minister may also be forced into a two-week quarantine if he tests positive.A spokesperson for Sharma’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy told CNN on Wednesday: “Secretary of State Alok Sharma began feeling unwell when in the chamber delivering the second reading of the Corporate Governance and Insolvency Bill. In line with guidance he has been tested for coronavirus and has returned home to self-isolate.”
MPs were forced to line up rather than pile into the chamber to comply with social distancing measures.
At the time of publication on Thursday, Sharrma had not yet had his test results back, according to the department.Liberal Democrat MP Daisy Cooper said on Twitter that Rees-Mogg should resign as Leader of the House for “bringing [it] into disrepute, and needlessly putting lives at risk”. She urged the Speaker Lindsay Hoyle to return parliament to virtual proceedings only with immediate effect.Labour MP John McDonnell said on Twitter: “I wish Alok Sharma a speedy recovery but this confirms that lives of both staff and MPs are being put at risk in Parliament. It was an irresponsible decision by Rees Mogg and Johnson to force open Parliament. It must now revert to lockdown and online operation.”