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MPs call for digital Parliament

In a letter with more than 100 co-signatories, Labour MP Chi Onwurah calls for politicians to lead by example during the coronavirus outbreak

More than 100 MPs have co-signed a letter calling for collaboration between government and the private sector to deliver a digital Parliament in response to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The letter by Chi Onwurah argues that Parliament should “lead by example” and “urgently deliver” a setup which would allow activities to continue via video conferencing to ensure social distancing.

Parliament is due to return on 21 April, yet there are currently no measures in place to enable MPs to work remotely. Cabinet meetings are taking place over Zoom for now – the first digital meeting happened on 31 March, with prime minister Boris Johnson displaying his ID on the video conferencing platform for everyone to see.

“In a national crisis, when 30 million households are being instructed to stay at home and save lives, we must show that we too have ‘got the message’,” said the letter from MPs.

“A number of Parliamentarians, including the Prime Minster, have already been struck down by the virus, and it is clear that Westminster is not a safe working environment. People up and down the country have made huge behavioural changes in a matter of days, and we must show that we are capable of it too,” the letter stated.

Onwurah, who has worked in the tech industry for years, argues that experts in the sector “are clear that the technology is there” and that digitising Parliament “is not rocket science”.

“It is a matter of how to do it, not whether it can be done,” she noted. “If we are asking the nation to go digital, then Parliament has to too. We must rise to the challenge like the many elderly Facetiming their families for the first time and the book clubs going from the front room to Zoom.”

According to the chief executive of trade body TechUK, Julian David, the tech industry has been supporting the government in dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

TechUK has been holding regular meetings with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and other bodies such as NHSX, said David. The meetings are aimed at ensuring that TechUK’s members’ issues and offers reach decision-makers in government directly.

“It’s all about connecting and protecting in these first weeks. Our number one priority has been to establish clear lines of communication between government and our industry,” he said in an article for Computer Weekly.

“Tech has been at the heart of supporting social distancing measures, particularly in how it has enabled home working and the continuity of education through cloud-based business apps and video conferencing software,” he added.

Telecommunications providers are working to provide support to professionals needing to connect, and networks “have coped well” with the increased demand, said David. “But it has shown the variable picture at the last mile and the patchy state of readiness of small businesses to operate online,” he noted.

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