LONDON (AP) — The British government pledged Wednesday to bring lawmakers back to the green benches of Parliament and have a “test, track and trace” program for the coronavirus in place by June 1, hoping to persuade the country that it’s time to cautiously start to emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown.
It hopes the commitment can also pave the way for the reopening of schools for some younger children.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the contact-tracing pledge after more criticism of his government's failure to have a national system in place for the past 10 weeks. Being able to track the contacts of those who have contracted the virus is considered a central plank of the government's plan to ease further lockdown restrictions.
“We’re making fast progress in testing and tracing and I have great confidence that by June 1 we will have a system that will enable us, that will help us very greatly to defeat this disease and move the country forward,” Johnson said.
Johnson said there will be 25,000 trackers in place who will be able to trace the contacts of 10,000 new cases a day, which is significantly more than the current level of 2,400 daily infections. He made no mention of whether a tracing app being trialed in the Isle of Wight, off the southern England coast, will be ready by then.
Johnson was responding to more criticism of the government from Keir Starmer, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party. He lambasted the government for having “no effective tracing in place” since March 12 when he said widespread tracing was effectively “abandoned.” Starmer said this has been a “huge hole” in the country’s defense against the coronavirus.
In an attempt to normalize the return to work now that the rate of infection is falling, the government also said it was looking to get lawmakers back to Parliament on June 2, an ambition that has raised questions over members’ safety. Parliament has been operating in a “hybrid” fashion for a month now, with only a few lawmakers allowed in the chamber at any one time and all abiding by social distancing guidelines.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, who as Leader of the House of Commons organizes government business in the chamber, told lawmakers that members should return to London after weeks of remote working because of the pandemic, which has claimed more than 35,000 lives in the U.K., more than any other European nation.
Rees-Mogg said the arrangements that have been in place over the past few weeks and involved the bulk of lawmakers voting remotely, don't allow proper scrutiny of the government.
Seeking to counter concerns that it was dangerous to pack out a chamber known all round the world for being boisterous and cramped, Rees-Mogg said those with underlying health conditions wouldn't be forced to attend and that social distancing guidelines will continue to be observed.
“We will not be returning to the crowded, bustling chamber of old,” he insisted.
In the month since their return from the traditional Easter break, a maximum of 50 of the 650 members of Parliament have been allowed to attend in person. Others could attend debates and ask questions via the video-conferencing program Zoom, beamed onto screens erected around the wood-paneled chamber.
Many lawmakers are critical of the move, saying it could effectively mean flouting advice not to make “non-essential journeys” and not to stay in second homes — the main residence of many is outside London in the area they represent.
“If ever there was a case of do as I say, not as I do, then this is it,” said Alistair Carmichael, a lawmaker from the Liberal Democrats.
Tommy Sheppard of the Scottish National Party went further, charging Rees-Mogg with being “reckless, cavalier and downright dangerous."
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