The government cannot keep MPs in the dark about coronavirus

The democratic scrutiny parliament provides is a key part of our arsenal against the virus

Natalie Bennett
Tuesday 03 March 2020 18:39 GMT
Bank of England governor Mark Carney gives a statement on coronavirus

The importance of acting quickly to stop coronavirus cannot be overstated. But at the same, it is more essential than ever that parliament does its job of ensuring those decisions are sound.

Today, for example, it has been reported that the UK will not remain a member of the EU’s Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) at the end of the Brexit transition period, unless we negotiate otherwise – yet for purely political reasons, the EWRS has not been included in Brexit negotiations. I’ve asked the government about this in a written question, and await their response.

Reports also suggest that health secretary Matt Hancock is has been told he cannot travel to meet with EU health ministers now that Britain has left the bloc. The idea that our health secretary has been prevented from liaising with his continental counterparts to tackle the virus is a serious political issue, one that deserves parliamentary attention. When I get the chance, I’ll be asking about it in the House, too.

There’s a further question I asked last week and am continuing to press: what access we have right now to drugs or vaccines developed and distributed under the European Medicines Agency rapid approval procedure and joint procurement arrangements. My understanding is that as a non-EU member, we do not have access to these. Switzerland is also not part of the system, but has asked to join specifically in order to respond to the coronavirus.

Among the most important considerations for parliamentarians is whether parliament will go into recess as a measure to reduce the spread of the virus. There’s obvious sense in this. MPs travel to and from their constituencies and meet many people – they are an obvious risk in spreading the virus. The problem is, the democratic scrutiny parliament provides is a key part of our arsenal against the virus.

The solution is obvious. It’s already been mooted that businesses and organisations might be asked to encourage staff to work from home to help combat the virus. Parliament could do the same.

The Speaker could easily chair videoconferences of MPs, for example, streamed to Parliament TV as usual. The Lords’ slightly anarchic oral questions, in which members jump up and down to get their question heard, may be a little harder to digitise, but far from impossible. Voting? Green MP Caroline Lucas (and many others) have long suggested electronic voting, already instituted in both the European and Scottish Parliaments.

Parliament too often operates as though it is the 19th century. But to protect our democracy from the ravages of coronavirus, it must finally make the leap into the 21st.

Natalie Bennett is a Green Party peer.

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