As Alok Sharma, the UK's Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), confirmed his negative test for coronavirus after taking ill in the House of Commons, the government was forced into an important U-turn on its rigid stance over compulsory physical attendance for all MPs despite the coronavirus infection rate still a stark reality in Britain.
The Global Indian Reading West MP had met Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street in London for a meeting just before he was tested for coronavirus after feeling unwell at the despatch box in Parliament on June 3. This meant if his coronavirus test had come back positive, not just him but also the UK PM and finance minister would have had to go into self-isolation for 14 days.
The 52-year-old Agra-born minister's condition, seen feeling uneasy and sweating during a debate on the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill, intensified criticism of the government and resulted in two important concessions.
Virtual participation in proceedings on Questions, Urgent Questions and Statements in Parliament for MPs unable to attend at Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic is one such concession under consideration. A second motion also proposes to allow MPs at high risk from coronavirus, either because “clinically extremely vulnerable” or “clinically vulnerable”, to arrange for their vote to be cast by proxy.
Under the UK's test and trace system,the government advice is for all "close contacts" who would have been in an infected person's vicinity for more than 15 minutes must get tested and go into self-isolation at home.
Sharma took to social media to confirm the coronavirus scare was over and therefore no tracing was required.
“Huge thanks to everyone for their really kind messages over the last 24 hours and my grateful thanks also to the parliamentary authorities and Speaker for their support yesterday. Just had results in and my test for Covid-19 was negative,” he said.
Shadow Business Secretary, Labour's Ed Miliband, was seen passing the minister a glass of water as Sharma looked visibly uncomfortable and queasy.
Earlier in the week, the minister was among hundreds of MPs seen queuing for hours to cast their votes under new social distance rules as Parliament returned to a physical setting after a hybrid version, which involved remote attendance by MPs via screens set up in the chamber.
While only a limited number of MPs are allowed to sit within the Commons chamber at any given point, Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg had stipulated the return of all parliamentarians to the Palace of Westminster in central London. He has faced backlash from all sides of the House over the decision to abandon digital voting options, including from MPs with health conditions who are unable to participate in proceedings.
Lisa Nandy, Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, was among those who expressed concern following Sharma's illness.
“This is just awful. 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,” she said.
Many of the MPs had posted images on social media of the long snaking queue across the Parliament complex on June 2 as they lined up to cast their vote while trying to maintain the requisite two-metre distance to prevent the transmission of the deadly virus.