Coronavirus: British MPs debate virtually via Zoom in historic session

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak makes a statement in the House of Commons in London on April 27, 2020. PHOTO: AFP PHOTO / PRU

LONDON • British lawmakers upended 700 years of history last Wednesday, grilling stand-in leader Dominic Raab by video link in an unprecedented but largely successful "hybrid Parliament" session forced by the coronavirus outbreak.

As Britain endured its fifth week of a national lockdown - with businesses shuttered and citizens ordered to stay at home - Parliament returned from an extended Easter break in a very unfamiliar form.

A maximum of 50 lawmakers are physically allowed in the debating chamber, with another 120 permitted to join in via Zoom video conference beamed onto television screens dotted around the walls of the ornate wood-panelled room.

Mr Raab, deputising for Prime Minister Boris Johnson who is recovering from a spell in intensive care with Covid-19, faced questions from lawmakers - absent the usual jeering in the crowded chamber, replaced by an orderly and almost entirely glitch-free interrogation.

A couple of early speakers in the session preceding Mr Raab's question time were partly inaudible, and one questioner was unable to connect, but the overall process was not derailed.

Mr Raab spoke from the debating chamber, where a handful of other lawmakers sat on green benches, observing social distancing markers taped on the carpet.

The closest brush with technical disaster was when one lengthy question was inadvertently cut short, leaving lawmaker Peter Bone's face animatedly reaching the climax of his interrogation on screen without audio.

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, the government's leader in Parliament, said the earlier hybrid session had gone "remarkably smoothly".

"Rapid change inevitably comes with risk, but these are exceptional times," he added.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: British MPs debate virtually via Zoom in historic session. Subscribe