UK looks at 'virtual parliament' to overcome coronavirus shutdown

Britain's parliament is investigating how it can operate virtually, to scrutinize the government even if lawmakers cannot physically attend debates, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle said on Wednesday.

Parliament closed early for its Easter break last month as the government introduced sweeping restrictions on daily life, ordering citizens to stay at home to limit the spread of coronavirus and only travel to work if strictly necessary.

That has effectively shutdown scrutiny of the government, with no existing protocols for teleconference political debates in place to replace the archaic debating system inside parliament's Westminster Palace.

Parliament is scheduled to return on April 21, but restrictions are expected to remain in place beyond that date. Some lawmakers self-isolating with symptoms of the virus would be frozen out of debates even if the Commons return on schedule.

"Once the House returns, if we are still in the grip of the crisis where the physical presence of Members, or too many Members, in the Palace is not appropriate, I am keen that they should be able to participate in key parliamentary proceedings virtually," Hoyle said in a letter to Jacob Rees-Mogg, the government's leader in the Commons.

Hoyle said trials of committee meetings held via teleconferencing had been successful and that he had asked officials to look into how similar technology could be used in parliament's main debating chamber.

The Speaker said he did not have the authority to unilaterally implement such changes, and asked Rees-Mogg to consider putting them to parliament for approval.