The British parliament returns on Tuesday from an extended Easter break, allowing lawmakers to scrutinise ministers as criticism grows of government handling of the coronavirus crisis and deaths outside hospitals increase.
MPs are being encouraged to attend the lower chamber House of Commons via video link for the first time as a result of the pandemic.
“My advice is please stay at home, let’s do it remotely,” Speaker of the Commons Lyndsay Hoyle told BBC radio.
Social distancing rules demanding people stay two metres (six feet) apart mean only 50 MPs will be able to sit in the 650-seat chamber at any one time.
They are instead being asked to call in via Zoom, an internet video conferencing service, in a first for the 700-year-old parliament.
Screens will be placed around the chamber so that those physically present — themselves separated by tape and signs on the green benches — can see their colleagues dialling in.
Parliament began its Easter holiday a week early last month due to the outbreak.
London was particularly hard hit and Prime Minister Boris Johnson was among many in parliament who became infected. He is still recovering after a week in hospital.
Britain remains on lockdown, with people asked to stay at home, but MPs were determined that parliament return as planned.
“In times of crisis, we must find new ways of working, just as we have done throughout history,” said Hoyle.
He added: “It will be a historic moment in our 700 years of history, to have MPs contributing to prime minister’s questions, urgent questions and statements via video link from the safety of their homes and offices.”
– Government criticism –
Johnson’s Conservatives — blamed for years of underfunding the state-run National Health Service even before the crisis — are under mounting pressure over their response to the crisis.
They have been dogged by criticism over a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare staff and the extent of testing for the virus.
NHS Providers, which represents hospital bosses, said it was concerned about a potential lack of equipment for frontline medical staff if the public are told to wear face masks.
But the government said it would prioritise NHS workers.
“We are focused on making sure we get the proper supplies of PPE to the NHS and all parts of the frontline in the fight against coronavirus,” Simon Clarke, a local government minister, told the BBC on Tuesday.
“And we will bear in mind representations from NHS Providers to prioritise supplies to where they will do the most good.”
Clarke added that a consignment of personal protective equipment being flown from Turkey will be in the UK within “the next few days”.
The British Dental Association meanwhile said its members were facing “critical shortages”.
The concerns came as media reports suggested that British firms were exporting much-needed equipment to other European countries, despite shortages in the UK.
– Care home deaths rise –
Weekly figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that the number of people dying in care homes was growing.
The official government toll, published daily, only counts those people who have died in hospital after being tested. The latest figure was 16,509.
However, the ONS said that more 15 percent of all deaths were occurring outside hospitals, in private homes and hospices, as well as care homes.
It said there were an extra 3,833 deaths outside hospital between April 10 and 18.