finance

UK business secretary tested for coronavirus


Business secretary Alok Sharma has been tested for coronavirus and is self-isolating at home after struggling to deliver a speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Just 24 hours after the government won a vote to scrap the UK’s “virtual” parliament, the cabinet minister was seen wiping his brow with a handkerchief at the despatch box.

Senior MPs had voiced health and practical concerns about the government’s decision to abandon temporary online voting measures during the pandemic.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, has insisted that the end of the virtual sittings and voting would improve “the quality of scrutiny”, with better communication between MPs and ministers.

Images emerged of MPs clustered together in a part of the Palace of Westminster on Tuesday as they were forced to stand in a 1km queue for almost an hour in order to vote.

In line with government guidance, any MP or government official who has been within two metres of Mr Sharma for more than 15 minutes in the two days before he developed the symptoms, will be contacted and asked to isolate if he tests positive for the virus.

A spokesperson for Mr Sharma said: “Secretary of state Alok Sharma began feeling unwell when in the chamber delivering the second reading of the Corporate Governance and Insolvency Bill.

“In line with guidance he has been tested for coronavirus and is returning home to self-isolate.”

One friend of Mr Sharma said the cabinet minister did not have a cough but was suffering with fever and a headache.

A deep clean has been carried out in the Commons since Mr Sharma’s appearance in the chamber, during which MPs were sat 2m apart. 

Speaking earlier on Wednesday, Boris Johnson said it was not “unreasonable” to ask parliamentarians to return to the Commons “and do their job for the people of this country”. Downing Street declined to comment on Mr Sharma’s apparent illness on Wednesday evening.

Mr Johnson himself received intensive care treatment in April after contracting the virus. Subsequently, health secretary Matt Hancock also tested positive. Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, went into self-isolation after displaying symptoms of Covid-19 shortly after the prime minister was tested. 

Daisy Cooper, a Liberal Democrat MP, said on Twitter: “I sincerely hope that Alok Sharma does not have the awful #COVID19 virus: being Male and BAME he’s at greater risk. But whether or not he does, this should be a massive wake-up call for Jacob Rees-Mogg.”

Keir Starmer, the opposition Labour leader, has urged the government to row back from the new “completely unnecessary and unacceptable” requirements on MPs.

Many have argued that the move to abandon online voting unfairly discriminates against those who are shielding from Covid-19 and will not be able to attend votes. Instead they will have to be “paired”.

Toby Perkins, a shadow Labour minister, commented on Mr Sharma’s appearance in the Commons on Wednesday.

“This is not ok. If he has symptoms that could be Covid-19, it’s not up to him to soldier on, he is jeopardising the health of everyone who he comes across and everyone else who touches that despatch box and every door handle he touches etc,” he said on Twitter.

“Maybe he’s had a test and knows it’s not that, but if so he should confirm that to people watching, otherwise the message again goes out that what the government says and means about what to do if you have symptoms are two different things.”

A House of Commons spokesperson said their priority was to ensure that those on the parliamentary estate were safe while business was facilitated. “We have closely followed guidance from [Public Health England] 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.”

Additional reporting by Jim Pickard



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