LONDON — The line of lawmakers waiting to vote stretched around an ancient hall, out through a cobbled courtyard and along an underground passage before snaking around an atrium to the cafeteria — all told, it was over half a mile in length.
On Tuesday, the joke was that Britain’s Parliament was a bit like Disneyland, but without the fun.
At the insistence of their government, lawmakers returned from a short vacation to find themselves obeying pre-pandemic rules that, in line with traditions that reach back centuries, require voting in person.
With the added burden of social distancing rules, however, lawmakers standing in what was being called the “conga line Parliament” waited, with varying degrees of impatience, to play their part in the democratic process.
For some, this was a welcome, if inconvenient, return to the time-honored ways of a Parliament that survived a devastating fire in the 19th century and the bombs of the Luftwaffe in World War II.
To others, it was an incomprehensible decision to prevent lawmakers from using modern technology to vote remotely, as they had been doing during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s an absolute disgrace, a total shambles,” said Ben Bradshaw, a Labour lawmaker, as he waited in line, adding that some of his colleagues had almost been crushed as they navigated an escalator.
Another lawmaker took a more philosophical approach, despite a wait of around 40 minutes. “At least I’m now in the queue,” said John Healey, from the Labour Party, using the British word for a line, “rather than the queue for the queue.”
Yet here, of all places, the rules are the rules, and on Tuesday those who tried to force the authorities to continue with digital voting were confronted by the awkward fact that they had to vote for it, in person.
Then, to make matters worse, they lost.
The episode was particularly galling for those lawmakers who are among the two million Britons deemed most vulnerable to Covid-19 because of their age or pre-existing conditions. Those groups have been instructed to stay home almost all the time, and until Tuesday, the lawmakers among them could still do their jobs, debating and voting digitally.
“There will probably be a couple of hundred M.P.s who won’t be able to vote,” said Robert Halfon, a Conservative, referring to the 650 members of Parliament. Mr. Halfon is among those lawmakers.
The government led by his party leader, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, “was snipping away against the democratic rights of M.P.s, turning us all into parliamentary eunuchs, and part of this is because of a kind of He-Man, Tarzan-like mentality,” Mr. Halfon told the BBC.
In a minor concession, the government has said that it would allow those medically unable to attend to contribute digitally to parliamentary procedures, but not to vote.
Instead, the government said, they could seek an agreement to stay away with a lawmaker from an opposing party, effectively canceling each other’s vote.
But that has left many angry, particularly lawmakers from areas far from London who worry that they risk spreading the virus by traveling the length of the country. Their fears are not ill-founded, because before strict social distancing rules were put in place, Parliament was the site of an early outbreak of Covid-19, the disease that is caused by the virus.
“This is ridiculous when we have an app developed to do the job,” Catherine McKinnell, an opposition Labour lawmaker, fumed on Twitter. “What is the Government so afraid of that they will risk spreading a deadly virus over allowing Members of Parliament to vote online?”
There are also worries that if lawmakers from Scotland, for example, feel unable to attend, that could weaken democratic accountability, with negative consequences for the unity of the nation.
What makes the turn of events more surprising is that Parliament had been operating a surprisingly smooth “hybrid” system with no more than 50 lawmakers in the compact House of Commons at a time, and others calling in from home via Zoom.
Voting, too, had taken place electronically for the first time in the history of Parliament. This also seemed to work, even if on one occasion the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, accidentally voted remotely the wrong way.
“The risk is that this turns Parliament from a global leader in adapting to the pandemic into an international laughingstock,” said Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard society, a research organization focused on Parliament. Insisting on physical voting, she added, could mean that the votes would take as long as the debates.
Some have speculated that the hostility toward a virtual Parliament comes from Mr. Johnson, who has looked uncomfortable during Prime Minister’s Questions, his weekly duel with the new leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 2, 2020
Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?
Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.
How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?
Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.
My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?
States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.
How do I take my temperature?
Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
With a maximum of 50 lawmakers allowed in the chamber at a time, and none of the usual cheering on display, it has become an exchange more suited to the forensic courtroom skills of Mr. Starmer, a former lawyer, than the bombastic prime minister.
But since that restriction on numbers in the chamber will remain, it seems unlikely that the noise level will rise.
Ms. Fox believes that the real motivation is the government’s desire to maintain discipline among its lawmakers, something that is much harder when they are spread around the country. Government business managers may also hope that opposition lawmakers will be less inclined to amend government bills because of the time each vote will take.
At the center of the furor is Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, and a man who has built a whole career on cultivating a self-consciously old-fashioned demeanor.
During the peak of the pandemic he agreed to remote working, but has since pressed for a resumption of business as usual, arguing that the digital Parliament is less effective than the real thing.
On Tuesday, Mr. Rees-Mogg told Parliament that many people were going back to work and that lawmakers “have a role as leaders” to do the same, glossing over the fact that official government advice is that those who can work from home should continue to do so.
Voting in Parliament should not be done “quietly and secretly,” he said, before noting that “some people tweeted that they were doing it while going for a walk and things like that.”
“Is that really the way to be voting on laws?” he asked.