THIS week Westminster has returned to work in a virtual space – in a UK changed beyond belief, beyond our darkest imaginations and at a time when no-one can predict how or when this global health crisis will end or how we will pick up the pieces once it is over.

Decisions made now will have a direct effect not only on this unknown future, but on the next few vital weeks, on how long we extend the lockdown and how we even start to plan a safe exit strategy, as well as how we prepare for an expected second wave. It’s imperative that democracy is up and running so that these important issues can be discussed in full, scrutinised and examined under the microscope by opposition parties.

And this will have to be a lot better than the powder-puff daily questioning of ministers and “experts” by Britain’s finest in the online video daily briefing mode. With a very few honourable exceptions (mostly working for Channel 4 News) the format seems to have pulled the teeth from journalistic enquiry. Faced with the most catastrophic public policy failure of our lifetime, the journalists have been but paper tigers. For inspiration they should take a glance at the guts of the mostly female journalists standing up to Trump across the Atlantic.

So much has happened and changed since MPs went on holiday three weeks ago. At that time around 500 people had died from coronavirus across the UK, a shocking amount in a short space of time. At the start of this week, the official numbers put the death toll at more than 16,500 for those in hospital. Now new figures from the Office for National Statistics have revealed that this 16,500 has been underestimated by 41% in England and Wales alone, which would account for the care home estimate. To say these figures are appalling is an understatement. They beggar belief.

READ MORE: Alyn Smith: Dysfunctional UK Government must act to deal with crisis

The public, of course, have shown that we are very much more switched on than governments think. So switched on in fact, that we took action into our own hands while the administrations across the UK swithered on when to lock down the country in March, with people deciding to work from home, take their kids out of school, shut down large-scale and smaller events and rearrange working conditions for staff way ahead of official announcements from Number 10. While Johnson and his cabinet delayed and mismanaged vital messages on social distancing and safety, the public took their lead from other countries like Ireland and Italy and Spain and made decisions to protect themselves and their families in so far as they could.

The UK Government thought the British public would never accept any curtailment of their freedom to go to the pub, for instance. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Apart from silly media stories on sunbathers and Lake District escapees, people across the UK have wholeheartedly done what is best for themselves, their families, friends, neighbours and work colleagues by staying apart and close to home. The Scottish Government like to stress these days how they took some different decisions. They did but only at the margins and not nearly enough. On the big calls they have been locked in a deadly macabre dance, trapped in the “four-nations approach”.

Now it’s time for the opposition parties to show just how switched on they are to the glaring mistakes, mismanagement and appalling lack of humanity shown by Number 10 in dealing with the coronavirus health crisis. The PM personally may still be in recovery, but with Dominic Raab at the helm, there should be no stopping MPs in terms of demanding answers and accountability for delays in decision-making and fatal errors of judgement by this Tory Government.

Once this new virtual Parliament has been approved by MPs and is up and running, 120 out of the 650 MPs in total will be able to take part in proceedings at a time, with another 50 allowed in the chamber with strict social distancing rules in place and video link-up.

All these changes mean that MPs will need to get used to a very different style of debating. As anyone who has taken part in a Zoom call these past few weeks with more than two or three participants, we all know how pointless it would be for MPs to get stuck in to heckling, name-calling or even filibustering during these virtual meetings. On Zoom, everyone needs to take their turn and they need to be listened to and given time to make their point. Where the physical energy and presence of an angry crowd and the urgency of noise might have made the steeliest of MPs relent in times gone by, one would hope that the focus of these virtual meetings will be professional courtesy and polite, substantive discussion. We shall see.

Despite both time and access being limited in terms of asking difficult questions in this new format, Raab should be forced to explain why the UK is heading for the highest death rate in Europe. Even on the misleading “deaths in hospital” count, we will soon be in the same place as the horror of Spain and Italy. Allowing for population size, we have five times the deaths of Germany, 50 times the deaths of South Korea and 100 times the deaths of New Zealand.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for us.

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