Westminster Diary: Daily developments as coronavirus spreads

PUBLISHED: 08:39 23 March 2020 | UPDATED: 08:40 23 March 2020

Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty in Whitehall ahead of a meeting of the Government's emergency committee Cobra to discuss coronavirus. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty in Whitehall ahead of a meeting of the Government's emergency committee Cobra to discuss coronavirus. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

They say a week is a long time in politics, and this week, coronavirus was a case in point.

Over the course of the week, I stopped shaking hands altogether. To start with it felt rude and distant turning down a handshake, but by the end of the week, people were apologising for even trying to reach for one. Initially a few people wanted to bump elbows instead. Until someone pointed out that if you don’t have a tissue, you should cough and sneeze into the crook of your arm.

In Parliament, the first MP was diagnosed. Those who had been in close contact or proximity to her were urged to self-isolate. Some MPs highlighted that many staff in Parliament don’t know whether they would have been or not – not every parliamentary researcher, intern, canteen worker or doorman will know who every MP is. To be honest, even I would struggle.

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My chief whip asked if I’d had any contact with her. Nope, I hadn’t. Media outfits asked if I’d been at the Number 10 event that she had attended. Nope, I hadn’t.

The new social shame of sneezing without a tissue or hand gel at the ready was a reality, as discovered by one guilty MP in the Chamber who sat red-faced, with all opposition eyes glaring at him.

In the lift, a rather stoic looking female MP asked what I made of the whole thing. It’s always good to answer questions with a witticism in the lift, because you’re only ever going up or down by a maximum three floors. I joked that I wished us MPs could legislate to force Chris Whitty (the Chief Medical Officer) to self-isolate – “if we can keep him safe, we should be alright”, I said. “Very good!” she replied, and we went our separate ways.

As I write, the local elections have just been postponed by a year. By the time you read this, events will have changed further still. A week might be a long time in politics but in St Albans, plans to help are popping up daily: community groups, pubs, banks, and volunteer networks stand ready to help anyone who might find themselves in need.


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