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The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the way we live our lives and how our democracy operates. As well as challenging parliamentary procedure, something which is rare to evolve, the pandemic has dominated again the schedule of both the Lords and the Commons.
At PMQs, the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, questioned the Prime Minister over the size of the UK death toll, in a week where UK coronavirus deaths exceeded 100,000. Mr Johnson described how the new, more transmissible variant, first identified in Kent in September, had exacerbated the situation in Britain compared to many of its European counterparts. Meanwhile, on the economic front, the SNP’s Westminster Leader, Ian Blackford, pushed the Government to make permanent the £20-per-week uplift in Universal Credit. The Prime Minister – often keen to stress the balancing act between the economy and health – refused to commit to Blackford’s demands and instead detailed the economic support the Government has provided to firms and households since March 2020.
Later on Wednesday, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, gave a statement to the Commons regarding the impact of coronavirus at the British border. Patel announced mandatory hotel-based quarantining for all travellers arriving from countries in Southern Africa, much of South America and Portugal – all of which have been hit hard by novel variants of COVID-19. The Home Secretary also hit-out at UK nationals heading abroad – for which now you need a ‘valid reason’. Criticised by many members were families turning up to the Eurostar wishing to go skiing and the exodus of so-called ‘influencers’ to Dubai at the start of the current lockdown. Patel came under fire again by Opposition MPs, such as the SNPs Johanna Cherry, over why the Home Office ‘failed to impose border restrictions’ earlier on in the pandemic.
At the start of the week, the environment featured heavily - something we can expect more of as the UK’s COP26 Summit approaches. In the Lords on Monday, Defra minister, Lord Goldsmith, was summoned to update the house over the progress of the Government’s manifesto commitment to plant an extra 30,000 hectares of tree per year by 2025. Lord Goldsmith spoke of his department’s concerns of tree diseases on the continent and how he would soon be publishing an ‘England tree strategy’ in the Spring.
In addition, under questioning from Tory Peer Lord Astor of Hever, who declared an interest as a woodland owner, the minister confirmed that the Government will support the use of oral contraceptives to control the number of grey squirrels – an invasive species that threatens Britain’s native reds and damage native trees. A day later in the Commons, the Government updated the House over the progress of the Environment Bill that aims, amongst other things, to halt the export of UK waste to developing countries. The Bill, which was first brought to the House in October 2019, had its first reading 12-months ago but is being delayed again ‘due to pressures on the parliamentary timetable’ from Brexit and coronavirus but should reappear by the Autumn. The only Green MP, Caroline Lucas, accused the government of incompetence over the delay whilst the Shadow Environment Secretary, Luke Pollard, noted that Labour agreed with the Bill’s aims but that the delay had meant that it is now too little too late.
Finally, the Deputy Speaker and Tory MP, Nigel Evans, presided over a historic moment for the Commons. Monday’s adornment debate – the final debate of each sitting day – was the first debate in the long history of the House of Commons to have no participants contributing from the chamber – all spoke virtually. Whilst symbolic of this past year of change, Evans suggested rather that, due to the debate coinciding with the evening of Burn’s Night, the low turnout was correlated to the drams of whisky being ‘drunk virtually or virtually drunk’.