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UK lawmakers balk at order to return and end virtual voting

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s 650 lawmakers are grappling with a question familiar to millions of their compatriots: When is it safe to go back to work?

Members of Parliament, who have largely been working from home while the coronavirus swept Britain, have been summoned back to the office on Tuesday — and many aren’t happy. They say the government’s decision to scrap a remote-voting system used during the pandemic will turn those who must stay home because of age, illness or family issues into second-class lawmakers.

After Britain went into lockdown in late March, Parliament adopted a historic “hybrid” way of working. Only 50 lawmakers at a time were allowed into the House of Commons, while screens were erected around the chamber so others could join debates over Zoom. Votes were held electronically for the first time in centuries of parliamentary history.

But when the House resumes work Tuesday after an 11-day spring recess, the first order of business will be a government demand to end the brief experiment with virtual voting.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the government’s leader of the House, says lawmakers should be setting an example by showing up in person as the country gets back to work.

“The virtual Parliament brought us through the peak of the pandemic but it is no longer necessary to make the compromises it demanded. We can do so much better,” he wrote in a parliamentary magazine.

The government’s opponents argue that it’s too early and too risky to return to Parliament.

“Asking people to travel from all corners of the U.K. to go to the global hotspot that is London … is gambling with the virus,” said Scottish National Party lawmaker Angus MacNeil, whose Hebridean island constituency is almost as far from London as it’s possible to get in the U.K. “Jacob Rees-Mogg is setting the wrong example.”

Britain has had Europe’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak, with more than 39,000 confirmed deaths. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government is gradually easing the nationwide lockdown, but authorities warn that progress is fragile, and too swift a relaxation could trigger a second wave of infections.

Millions of people classed as vulnerable — because of age or underlying health conditions — are still being told to avoid almost all contact with others. The government says everyone else should meet only in small groups while maintaining social distancing, and work from home if they can.

Rees-Mogg said Parliament will become “a COVID-secure workplace,” with hand sanitizer dispensers and floor markings to help enforce social distancing.

But Parliamentary authorities have major concerns. With its crammed chamber and warren of corridors, Parliament was fertile soil for the virus when the outbreak began. Multiple lawmakers and staff fell ill, including Johnson, who ended up in intensive care.

House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle has said he worries about infection. He also has ruled that the traditional method of voting, in which lawmakers walk through separate “yes” or “no” lobbies, is unsafe because it’ll be impossible to maintain social distancing.

The government’s proposed alternative would see lawmakers form a 1 kilometer (more than half a mile) queue snaking through the labyrinthine Parliament building before walking through the voting lobbies one by one.

Parliament’s Procedure Committee took a dim view of that idea, noting drily that it had “significant practical deficiencies.” Critics dubbed it a “conga-line Parliament.”

Opposition politicians are pressing to keep electronic voting. They accuse the Conservative administration of hustling lawmakers back to Parliament so that Johnson will have a supportive chorus during his weekly Commons question session.

They say abandoning remote votes will silence those who have to remain at home due to age, health conditions or childcare demands — many British children have yet to return to school.

The Commons’ move comes as Parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, puts the finishing touches to a system that will allow its members, whose average age is 70, to vote with their phone.

Labour Party lawmaker Margaret Hodge, 75, tweeted that, as someone in the vulnerable category, “I am furious that for the first time in my 25 years as an MP I am being denied the right to vote!”

“This damaging move will limit accountability & create a toothless Parliament,” she said.

Conservative lawmaker Robert Halfon, who is disabled, said cutting off virtual participation could lead to a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” Parliament.

The government insists all lawmakers will be able to participate — it’s just not exactly sure how.

Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said “those who need to shield due to their age or their medical circumstances should continue to do so.”

He said informal arrangements such as “pairing” — in which two lawmakers from opposing parties agree not to participate in a specific vote — would ensure that absent lawmakers were not disenfranchised.

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Follow AP news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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