‘Reckless doesn’t begin to describe it’: MPs furious as Alok Sharma tested for coronavirus after return to parliament

‘They must now rectify this serious mistake and reintroduce hybrid proceedings without delay’

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Thursday 04 June 2020 15:56
Business Secretary Alok Sharma appears sick during Commons

Jacob Rees-Mogg is facing renewed calls to restore the virtual parliament as MPs reacted furiously to the “reckless” scenes of a minister appearing visibly ill in the Commons – just 24 hours after members queued around the parliamentary estate to vote.

A spokesperson for Alok Sharma confirmed the business secretary had started self-isolating and is awaiting the results of a Covid-19 test after he began to feel unwell in the chamber.

The cabinet minister was seen wiping his brow with a handkerchief several times and was passed a glass of water by his opposite number, Ed Miliband, during a debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening.

In a sign of the degree of anger at the government over the issue, the speaker also granted MPs an emergency debate on Monday on how the house operates during the pandemic.

“The government stopped MPs from working from home and asked us to return to a building where social distancing is impossible,” Labour frontbencher Lisa Nandy said. “MPs are travelling home to every part of the country tonight. Reckless doesn’t even begin to describe it.”

Speaking to Sky News, the shadow foreign secretary went on: “I just think this all sends a very bad message to the country.”

“We’re just creating exactly the wrong impression because of the actions that Jacob Rees-Mogg took this week,” she added. “We all need to be clear that social distancing matters.”

David Lammy, shadow justice secretary, said: “If he tests positive they [MPs] will have gone back into the community and potentially have taken the virus with them. Which is why the representation to Jacob Rees-Mogg was so serious, and it’s bizarre and dangerous that they were ignored.

“We could have had electronic voting alongside a parliament that was really, really carefully socially distanced which is what we had before the recess, and that was thrown out.”

Kirsty Blackman, the SNP’s Westminster deputy leader, said the incident demonstrated “just how ridiculous and irresponsible the Tory government’s decision to end virtual participation in parliament was”.

She added: “They must now rectify this serious mistake and reintroduce hybrid proceedings without delay. It light of this development it’s difficult to see how else parliament can proceed – but what is clear is that this botched system isn’t working and needs to change urgently to protect our democracy.”

Sir Ed Davey, the acting Liberal Democrat leader, also said he agreed with calls for Mr Rees-Mogg to resign as leader of the Commons. Posting on social media, the party’s MP Daisy Cooper said he was bringing the house “into disrepute, and needlessly putting lives at risk”.

But speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, cabinet minister Brandon Lewis said: “I don’t want to be premature because Alok, who I wish well and hope he recovers quickly, may well have had severe hay fever, we’re not sure yet. He has had a test, he is self-isolating as you say, to take correct precaution.”

Defending the end of the so-called hybrid parliament – introduced during the height of the pandemic so MPs were not required to be physically present in the chamber – the Northern Ireland secretary added: “It is important for parliamentarians to be able to properly scrutinise legislation, not just for Covid but for the wider legislative agenda we have to continue with for people across the country, but to do so within proper guidelines.

“That’s what the house authorities have set up, that’s what’s been working over the last few days and that’s a very good thing.

“It highlights Alok’s situation, if he has got coronavirus, why it is so important that if you are in a work environment, you have got to follow the guidelines.”

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