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27 March 2020

Parliament has questions to answer about the spread of Covid-19 in Westminster

MPs failed to adapt their working practices after the first Westminster diagnosis. Now they are falling sick.

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson has been diagnosed with Covid-19. So has Angela Rayner, the frontrunner to become Labour’s next deputy leader. A slew of MPs have entered self-isolation after coming down with symptoms. The coronavirus has spread to the civil service, with staff in various departments juggling both working from home with the disease and helping to lead the government’s response to the pandemic.

When Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College academic who has done much of the modelling informing government policy, entered self-isolation on 18 March after developing the symptoms, he tweeted: “There is a lot of Covid-19 in Westminster”.

This is the predictable and predicted consequence of MPs and the Commons authorities’ decision not to alter how they worked on 11 March after Nadine Dorries, a health minister, became the first MP to be diagnosed with the virus. They and we knew at the time that it was highly transmissible and there were many asymptomatic carriers.

As I wrote at the time, one of the shared traits of MPs is recklessness with their own safety. Urgent repairs to make Parliament safe to work in have been delayed time and again due to political concerns over the cost and traditionalist opposition. Parliament including the House of Lords, whose working peers are largely in the at-risk group for Covid-19 contined to operate as normal for many days after Dorries’ diagnosis and after Ferguson’s tweet.

There are two implications. The first is that the best way to encourage good behaviour is to demonstrate it yourself, which MPs failed to do. The contrast to the Queen Elizabeth II Centre just down the road from Parliament, which shut its doors and urged conference delegates to self-isolate after a single case, is strong and marked.

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The second is that while, in the aftermath of all this, there will rightly be multiple inquiries into the government’s handling of the crisis, there are also important questions to be asked about the reaction of the parliamentary authorities to the first diagnosed case in their ranks – and what the lessons are from that failure.