Parliament has returned this week and what a difference to normal proceedings.
The majority of MPs have been told to stay away and use technology to access Parliamentary debates, questions, statements etc. We are using Zoom, a computer programme which allows you to speak and be seen via your computer’s camera and microphone. Many users can join a Zoom session, allowing everybody to see each other. These Zoom sessions have also been broadcast on Parliament TV, allowing members of the public to view different debates & sessions.
There had been a small trial for this virtual Parliament just before the Easter recess, for which I had the opportunity to be involved in the first Select Committee hearing via Zoom.
There was quite a lot of interest in how the first PMQ’s would work. MPs were drawn to ask a question in advance (normally, if you are in the Chamber you rise to attract the Speakers attention to try and be selected). Perhaps surprisingly it worked well, though David Mundell MP, who was meant to be the first up did have technical issues at the last moment and missed out.
There has also been much interest in the backdrops of each MP. Some have played it safe with blank walls whilst others have had impressive bookshelves or colourful pictures. I have been sat in front of a picture of Parliament my brother had painted, to at least make it relevant!
Mind you, nothing compared to the Welsh Assembly Minister who had forgotten his microphone was on and used expletives to describe those who had just questioned him – not learning the lesson of Gordon Brown in the 2010 election!
Zoom is also being used for a lot of my meetings, with stakeholders and businesses and I know local authorities including Swindon Borough Council has also being using similar systems.
I appeared before my second Select Committee using Zoom on Thursday – the Work & Pension Select Committee. Alongside fellow DWP Ministers, we were quizzed on how the Universal Credit and Disability Benefits. Both have worked well, UC has processed 1.4m new claims (in no small part to it being an automated system), and with Disability Benefits our decision to stop face to face assessments (switching to either paper based, or telephone reviews) for new claimants, and auto-extending existing awards for those due in the next 3 months has enabled us to continue getting money to those most in need.
This week the Government announced £45 million funding for world-leading UK projects that are working on a vaccine for Covid-19. This will go towards two projects: one at Oxford University the other at Imperial College, with the first human trials taking place this week. Of course, this process could take months and there are no guarantees that it will bear fruit; however, I am pleased that we are backing our scientists and providing them with the resources needed to find a vaccine.
This week also saw the rapid creation of 3 new Lighthouse Labs for the analysis of coronavirus tests for frontline workers. Each site, which only took 3 weeks to complete and begin testing, is scaling up the testing of thousands of patient samples from drive-through testing sites every day, allowing those who have tested negative to return to work.