Read: The coronavirus’s real and immediate threat to democracy
When Johnson addressed British lawmakers in the House of Commons on Wednesday for Prime Minister’s Questions, he didn’t have much of an audience. The chamber’s famous green benches, typically obscured by the hundreds of parliamentarians squeezing onto them, were in full view as he took questions from the dozens of colleagues permitted to attend the weekly gathering (those not scheduled to ask a question were asked to observe from afar).
This is one of the procedural changes the British government has made in recent weeks to curb the spread of the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. Postponing upcoming local elections, previously scheduled for May, until next year is another. In most respects, though, British governance has more or less continued unchanged. Parliament remains open and, despite some efforts to reduce the number of face-to-face interactions, many lawmakers, parliamentary staffers, and civil servants are still going into the office as normal. Several journalists, packed tightly together, continue to attend Johnson’s daily news conferences on the pandemic.
Though the lack of further social-distancing measures has enabled the British government to function as normal, it has also put it at higher risk. The number of lawmakers exposed to the outbreak is increasing almost daily, with more than two dozen already under self-isolation, of which two are confirmed to have contracted the disease. Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist advising Downing Street on its coronavirus strategy, announced this week that he too had started developing symptoms. “There is a lot of COVID-19 in Westminster,” he said in a tweet.
Britain’s isn’t the only government that has been slow to adapt to this new reality. In the United States, millions of federal workers are continuing to report to the office even as public-health officials have advised the rest of the country to do the opposite. (Although the Trump administration issued new guidance on Sunday asking government agencies to offer “maximum telework flexibilities,” it doesn’t necessarily apply to all federal workers.) India’s lawmakers, who have been exempted from social-distancing restrictions, continue to gather in Parliament. In Italy, which imposed a nationwide lockdown to cope with the outbreak, lawmakers are still meeting in person, albeit only one day a week. Those in attendance must keep at least three feet away from one another.
These changes really only scratch the surface of the types of distance-friendly measures governments and legislatures could be adopting to further facilitate social distancing. Take voting, for example. In Britain, where lawmakers must physically walk through crowded lobbies to vote on legislation, Parliament could instead adopt ballot or electronic voting. “We already have a procedure, which is called ‘deferred division,’ where [members of Parliament] vote on paper,” Hannah White, the deputy director of the London-based Institute for Government think tank, told me. The easiest solution would be to simply “extend that to all votes.”