We are living through unprecedented times, but just like all of us, government and parliament are adapting to a new way of working.
New structures within government as MPs head home early
The immediate attention of the Government is understandably and rightly on responding to the national public health and economic emergency that we face. As the Prime Minister put the country on a war-like footing, camp beds have been dusted off, and families have been told not to expect to see loved ones working on the front-line for days, weeks and possibly months.
But this bunker is far from isolated from the outside world.
It is relying on a network of communications channels, some hastily set-up, to feed those inside with information and intelligence in order to guide their next move.
As a priority, the prime minister created a new ministerial structure framed around four new implementation committees focusing on health, public sector preparedness, the economy and the international response. Each committee is chaired by the relevant secretary of state and brings together officials and ministers, reporting into Downing Street.
Number 10’s business team and its sector specialists have been tasked with triaging the huge amount of correspondence pouring in from companies up and down the country who are requesting additional clarification, detail and support.
And within the ministerial departments, officials and advisers are having to manage an unprecedented amount inbound communication. Their job is to identify common themes and to spot worrying outliers, relaying this information up through the chain of command for action.
Outside of Whitehall, it was confirmed today that MPs would leave for their constituencies a week earlier than planned for Easter recess.
This measure follows on the back of the Speaker telling all visitors to stay away from the parliamentary estate, select committee hearings being wound-up with no witnesses to interview, and Westminster Hall debates being pulled for fear of transmission.
New ways of working
Against this backdrop you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing else but coronavirus matters.
It is true that priorities have shifted, and that the coronavirus response is without doubt the single biggest item on the Government’s agenda. The response, and its aftermath, will preoccupy the duration of this Government, and probably the next.
But it is noticeable that, even now, most meetings already in the diary to take place in person with ministers, parliamentarians and officials on matters outside of coronavirus, are being quickly re-arranged to take place over audio and video conference lines.
Postponed not cancelled. Moved in the diary not removed from the agenda entirely.
Similarly, all current select committee inquiries have had their deadlines for evidence submissions extended.
While Easter recess could not have come sooner for many MPs, parliament is expected to return – in some way – on April 21st. Robert Halfon MP, chairman of the education select committee, is pushing with many others for remote working to be enabled.
Central to this will be video conferencing and, potentially, digital votes. This may not be possible to arrange at full-scale in just a few weeks, but the Commons has already approved temporary use of video conferencing by select committees until June 30th, with the option for the Speaker to extend.
We can expect more information to follow in the coming weeks as 21st century parliamentarians lobby the new speaker to bring parliament up to speed to allow much required parliamentary scrutiny to continue.
The attention and focus of the Government and parliament will, of course, remain doggedly on coronavirus for the foreseeable future, but we should not forget that this is a Government at the start of its journey not the end.
It is a Government with a manifesto that – while surpassed by recent events – was built on a lot of promises that people will remember, not least the levelling up agenda.
This Government will have a mammoth task in responding to the fast-moving crisis and realising its commitments through tangible outcomes.
In the fog of war it can be hard to see, but this Government is lucky to have a business community standing ready with ideas and solutions to help it in its immediate response and in the delivery of previously made pledges.