March 4, 2020 / 3:57 PM / a month ago

UPDATE 1-Nervy British lawmakers sweat over coronavirus reaching parliament

(Adds PM’s spokesman)

By William James

LONDON, March 4 (Reuters) - Britain’s 19th-century parliamentary palace and its hundreds of grand offices and wood-panelled meeting rooms are ill-equipped to deal with the global outbreak of coronavirus, according to some worried lawmakers working inside the building.

The government is hoping to contain the spread of the virus, but expects the number of infections to rise from 85 currently. On Tuesday it published an action plan setting out how to cope if it becomes widespread in the country.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s current advice to citizens is to wash their hands more often.

However, several lawmakers expressed concern that the risks inside parliament were greater and that its ageing facilities made following even this basic advice more difficult.

“Parliament seems hopelessly ill prepared,” lawmaker Chris Bryant told Reuters.

“There are toilets where the towels ran out days ago, toilets with no soap or sanitiser, one men’s toilet where one of the two sinks has not worked for a decade.”

The grandeur of parliament’s ornate debating chamber, lined with lush green leather benches, masks a wider estate struggling to cope with the demands of the thousands of employees who work there every day - from lawmakers and researchers to journalists, cooks and cleaners.

While the estate awaits a multi-billion pound renovation, toilets are frequently out of order, heating in offices can be temperamental and many doors in the oldest part of the building can only be opened by pressing a button or twisting a metal door knob.

Reuters saw a member of staff wearing rubber gloves cleaning door handles on Wednesday.

CONTAINMENT PHASE

Johnson, was asked by a lawmaker on Wednesday whether parliament was considering introducing conference calls and electronic voting if the situation worsened.

“We are still at the containment stage ... when we come to the ‘delay’ phase she will be hearing a lot more detail about what we propose to do with large gatherings and places such as parliament,” he replied.

Johnson’s spokesman, asked whether there was a specific contingency plan, later said discussions were taking place with parliamentary authorities and medical experts.

A parliament spokeswoman said they would continue to follow guidance from Public Health England and were monitoring the situation closely.

While some hand-sanitiser points have been installed, lawmaker Geraint Davies said he was concerned that there were insufficient places where the gel could be obtained.

“There’s lots of people walking through the corridors all the time, touching the same doors and shaking hands - there should be hand-sanitisers all along those corridors,” he said.

“The nature of parliamentarians is that we arrive every week, converging from every corner of the country, we all mix together with lots of other people and then we disperse back to our constituencies and meet lots of other people.

“There’s a particular responsibility for parliamentarians to take some leadership.” (Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, Editing by Stephen Addison)

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