Alok Sharma: is it safe for MPs to attend Parliament as Business Secretary becomes ill with suspected coronavirus?

Business Secretary Alok Sharma has been tested for coronavirus, after he became visibly unwell in the House of Commons the day after voting on a bill

Mr Sharma struggled to deliver a speech at the despatch box during the second reading of the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill on Wednesday (3 Jun), and is now self-isolating at home.

Why has virtual voting stopped in the Commons?

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The Business Secretary fell ill with suspected coronavirus in the chamber just a day after MPs approved the government’s plan to end virtual voting in the Commons.

Mr Sharma struggled to deliver a speech at the despatch box on 3 June

However, there have now been renewed calls for the virtual system to be reinstated after Mr Sharma was seen looking uncomfortable and wiping his face with a handkerchief several times during the debate.

Digital voting in the House of Commons was ended on Tuesday 2 June following approval of a government motion introduced by Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, despite widespread objections from some MPs.

The move raised concerns that a return to the Commons would prevent many MPs, particularly the elderly and vulnerable who are shielding, from being able to vote.

How is social distancing maintained in Parliament?

MPs had to form a long queue which snaked through Parliament to vote on the motion, so that social distancing could be maintained.

However, despite efforts to keep two metres apart, the size of the chamber made it difficult for some MPs to keep their distance as they tried to swap seats, or move around.

The despatch box was also being wiped down between exchanges, but MPs have expressed concerns after Mr Sharma was seen sniffing and sweating in the chamber.

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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer described the scenes as “shameful”, and called for the Prime Minister to end the “completely unnecessary and unacceptable” process, while Labour shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy branded the move as “reckless”.

She said: "The Government stopped MPs from working from home and asked us to return to a building where social distancing is impossible.

"MPs are travelling home to every part of the country tonight. Reckless doesn't even begin to describe it."

However, Boris Johnson dismissed complaints over the system and said he did not think it to be unreasonable to ask parliamentarians to return to work.

A spokeswoman for the House of Commons said an “additional cleaning” had taken place following Mr Sharma’s suspected case of coronavirus.

She said: "We have closely followed guidance from PHE on action to take following a suspected case of Covid on site, including additional cleaning.

"Our risk assessment outlines the measures we have already put in place to reduce the risk of transmission in Parliament."

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Mr Sharma reportedly began feeling unwell when he was in the chamber delivering the second reading of the Corporate Governance and Insolvency Bill.

Following government guidance, he has now been tested for coronavirus and has returned home to self-isolate.

Will MPs have to self-isolate?

MPs who were present in the Commons could potentially be contacted by NHS contact tracers and asked to self-isolate if Mr Sharma tests positive for coronavirus.

Several MPs expressed concerns about the Business Secretary’s appearance in the Commons, saying it was irresponsible for him to be present when unwell.

Labour shadow minister Toby Perkins, who raised concerns over Mr Sharma’s presence earlier in the day, said: “This is ridiculous. It was clear that Alok Sharma looked unwell.

"If there are now fears that he may have Covid-19 and he hadn't already tested negative, it was the height of irresponsibility for him to be in Parliament sniffling, sweating and snorting from the despatch box."

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The SNP has called for virtual proceedings to return without delay, following Mr Sharma’s suspected case of coronavirus.

Deputy leader in Westminster Kirsty Blackman MP said the case shows how “ridiculous and irresponsible” it was to end virtual participation in Parliament.

She said: “They must now rectify this serious mistake and reintroduce hybrid proceedings without delay.

"In 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.

"Millions of people across Scotland and the UK have been disenfranchised by the Tory decision, which has blocked many MPs from participating and voting."