MPs ordered to stay away from Commons debating chamber as coronavirus crisis deepens
Boris Johnson takes questions at Prime Minister's Questions
MPs have been told to stay away from the House of Commons debating chamber in a bid to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Party whips told them to avoid the chamber for the weekly round of Prime Minister's Questions unless they were already down to ask a question on the day's order paper.
A Labour source told PoliticsHome their MPs were ordered to "space themselves out" to lessen the chance of passing on the infection.
But Commons authorities insisted that there had been no change in their official guidance on attending the chamber.
MPs who did show up for the half-hour session sat noticeably further apart from each other than usual, as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn went head-to-head.
One Conservative MP told PoliticsHome that while a message from Tory whips only referenced PMQs, they "expect MPs will adhere to the same policy for the rest of day".
A Labour MP said: "Our whips are asking us to space and not to go in unless we a) have a question to ask in order paper or b) plan to bob [try to catch the eye of the Speaker] - which sounds sensible in my view."
PoliticsHome understands that party whips are also considering a '50/50' arrangement - where MPs split into two "teams" and attend the chamber on alternate weeks - in a bid to keep the Commons up-and-running while slowing the spread of Covid-19.
Parliament officials have already banned visitors from the Palace of Westminster as part of efforts to defeat the outbreak.
Speaking at PMQs, Mr Corbyn said: "I want to thank the... very responsible approach MPs have taken to today's question time by sitting a suitable distance apart to avoid cross-fertilisation of this horrible disease."
And, in a rare show of political unity, the Prime Minister said: "I want to thank [Jeremy Corbyn] for the way in which the Opposition has been approaching this issue, generally, and for the co-operation that has so far taken place between our frontbenches in this matter... This is a national emergency, and we are asking the public to do things to take actions in a way that is really unprecedented for a government in peacetime, and perhaps even unprecedented in the last century."
Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle said: "Those watching our proceedings will have noticed that our attendance today is significantly below the normal numbers.
"I have discussed with the usual channels ways in which we can limit the numbers of people crammed in together to ensure maximum safety.
"We are all doing our best to keep Parliament sitting and to follow Public Health England guidance."
The sparesely-attended session of PMQs saw Mr Johnson confirm that the Government would be offering fresh help to shield those in rented accomodation from the financial toll of the coronavirus.
The Government has been under mounting pressure to go further than a three-month mortgage holiday unveiled by Chancellor Rishi Sunak as part of a £350bn economic stimulus package unveiled on Tuesday evening.
Mr Corbyn, who is facing his final few sessions at Prime Minister's Questions before a new Labour leader is elected on 4 April, said ministers had so fair offered "nothing to the 20 million people living in rented homes".
"They are worried, they are worried sick that they can't pay their rent if they get ill, lose pay, or feel they need to self-isolate," he said.
"It is in the interests of public health, of the health of all of us, that people don't feel forced to go to work in order to avoid eviction when they know themselves they may be spreading this terrible disease.
"So will the Prime Minister now confirm the government's emergency legislation will protect private renters from eviction?"
Mr Johnson replied: "I can indeed confirm that we will be bringing forward legislation to protect private renters from eviction, that is one thing we will do.
"But it is also important as we legislate that we do not simply pass on the problems. So we will also be taking steps to protect other actors in the economy."
The PMQs session came as the Government vowed to dramatically increase the number of Covid-19 tests taking place across the country.
NHS and Public Health England have already increased testing from 5,000 a day to 7,500, ministers have been told, with a further increase to 10,000 expected by next week.
The Government is now aiming for 25,000 tests a day to be carried out within four weeks.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "Public safety is my top priority, and radically ramping up testing for coronavirus is a key part of our plan to protect lives. We are already among the best in the world for coronavirus testing and today we are launching a national effort to increase our testing capability even further."