Boris Johnson's Cabinet to make history with first meeting via conference call

Unprecedented move to video conferencing comes as PM and ministers try to avoid contracting coronavirus

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The Cabinet meeting where Prime Minister Boris Johnson was flanked by his new Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak  on February 14 seems like a very long time ago
The Cabinet meeting where Prime Minister Boris Johnson was flanked by his new Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak  on February 14 seems like a very long time ago Credit: Getty images

 

The Cabinet will hold a meeting largely via video conference for the first time ever time to avoid ministers risking giving each other Covid-19.

It comes after Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, used the Skype video conferencing software to speak to his mother Charlotte on Mothering Sunday to ensure there was social distancing between two.

Number 10 said that "a very significant" number of Cabinet ministers will take part in the regular weekly meeting on Tuesday morning via video phone. 

While previously some ministers have dialled into the weekly meeting in 10 Downing Street, the scale of ministers calling in is thought to be a first.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "I would expect now and for the foreseeable future a very significant number of Cabinet ministers will take part by dialling in via video conferencing."

In the House of Commons, Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle made clear that MPs would increasingly be carried out via conference call once the authorities had enough staff to work the technology.

He told MPs - who were sitting six feet apart on the green benches to ensure that they were socially distancing - that select committees would increasingly take evidence from witnesses via video calls.

In the Commons today Health Secretary Matt Hancock (above) said that some people's behaviour was "very selfish", warning they must keep two metres apart. MPs on Monday debated proposed emergency legislation to give police and immigration officers increased powers to force people to isolate themselves.

He said: "These facilities are currently limited not at east because the management of these sessions requires expert operators to produce audio visual output for a suitable quality for broadcast use."

Staff absences had made it much harder to train up staff but more will be trained "as a matter of priority over the Easter recess", he said. Sir Lindsay also confirmed more restaurants had closed in Parliament to stop the risk of the spread of the disease and to take into account fewer MPs in Parliament.

He added that the "sale of alcohol in the House of Commons venues has been suspended until further notice".

MPs would also no longer be required to squeeze into "aye" and "no" voting lobbies when they vote in the Commons, potentially doubling the time to vote for half an hour.

Sir Lindsay said: "The arrangements will be modified to allow for social distancing. The entry of members will be staggered with entry at separate times for three alphabetical groups."

Sir Lindsay also urged MPs to "think twice" before tabling parliamentary questions and consider "the impact of such questions on government officials who are working incredibly hard to respond to the current crisis".

The Prime Minister set out guidelines for social distancing in his daily press conference yesterday:

MPs lined up to welcome the changes. Mark Harper, the former Government chief whip, said he welcomed the steps "to allow the House to continue to do its democratic role but in a way that is safe and consistent with the advice the Government has set out and is expecting our constituents to follow".

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, said that in future MPs would hold the Government to account "but in ways that are different from those that we have used previously". He also strongly hinted that MPs would not be required to debate legislation next week, as had been planned.

MPs were due to vote through all stages of the Coronavirus Bill today to allow peers vote through the Bill as early as Tuesday and at the latest Wednesday, allowing Parliament to break for Easter recess then.

Sources close to the Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said he was calling for the House of Commons to rise as soon as the emergency coronavirus legislation has passed its final stages.

Sir Lindsay's changes came after a group of MPs wrote to him demanding “immediate and temporary” alterations to the functioning of Parliament, saying that a “packed Commons chamber is unacceptable at this time.”

Setting out 10 proposals to improve social distancing measures, the MPs had said that all business unrelated to the coronavirus outbreak should be suspended, as well as drawing up a rota for members to attend the chamber.

Other requests included closing the division lobbies and switching to electronic voting using mobile phones or the internet, and allowing select committee members to dial-in remotely to hearings.