Coronavirus: Parliament to shut up shop for time being

House of Commons during debate on emergency legislation Image copyright UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

It seems like another era.

A few weeks ago a Cabinet minister told me very firmly there was no way that Parliament could shut up shop because of the coronavirus.

There were already concerns about the wisdom of carrying on, but they were adamant, MPs must not disappear from the green benches: the symbol it would send to the country would be entirely wrong.

The Commons didn't close during World War II after all, they said, it couldn't be allowed to happen now.

But, day by day, as MPs reported symptoms, one minister testing positive, but still people in Westminster clustered together, disquiet grew.

The Speaker just yesterday urging members to spread out on the green benches properly, to observe the rules on keeping their distance the rest of the country is now expected to obey.

For the thousands of staff who work in Parliament's cafes, offices, facilities too, there were concerns about everyone's safety in what is so often described as a village, where many different kinds of people interact in all sorts of ways.

Now, from tonight, after the emergency legislation that ministers have been rushing to pass has been granted the rubber stamp from the Palace - Royal Assent - Parliament is expected to rise.

The motions have already been laid to allow that to happen - in other words, the mechanism to push the button is already prepared.

In straightforward terms, the place is only really falling in line with much of the country, where gatherings of more than two people are now against the rules, and everyone must stay home if they can.

MPs will of course still work helping their constituents, many of them in recent days have been frantically trying to seek information and answers on their behalf.

There is a date planned to return at the end of April when MPs technically have to come back to vote on the Finance Bill, and hope then for some kind of managed return.

Yet, tonight's closure is a potent symbol of how far the virus' reach extends.

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