Coronavirus (COVID-19): How parliaments are working during the pandemic

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This blog was originally published on 7 May and was updated on 21 May 2020.

For some people one question might not be how parliaments are working during the pandemic, but why.  Talking about the UK parliament in this instance the Institute for Government (IfG) makes the case for a return to the “ordinary operating model of parliamentary democracy – in which parliament’s consent is sought for controversial measures”.  The IfG says

“as parliament gears up to perform many of its functions remotely, it is increasingly important that key decisions are made in, and scrutinised by, parliament. That will help to ensure that the UK’s coronavirus response is effective, legitimate and lawful.”

So how have parliaments around the world been gearing up to play their part?   Last week, our colleagues in the Oireachtas Library and Research service produced a briefing looking at how twelve parliaments or assemblies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, Wales, N Ireland, Scotland, Israel, Austria, Denmark, Finland and Germany) had started to adapt their procedures and practices to adhere to the restrictions on physical meetings imposed due to COVID-19. 

Parliaments face procedural, technical and logistical challenges in finding appropriate ways of working to ensure that they can fulfil their key functions of passing legislation, allocating resources and scrutinising government actions, while also protecting the health of Members as well as parliamentary and political staff. There is also the challenge to ensure that Members can represent their constituents appropriately.

The key points from the Oireachtas briefing are:

  • Most parliaments are continuing to meet – with restrictions in place to adhere to health measures introduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The restrictions typically include fewer sittings, limiting parliamentary business to COVID-19 related matters and other urgent business, and fewer members in attendance to facilitate social distancing.
  • The constitutional and legal frameworks in most European parliaments do not provide for holding remote plenary sessions or remote voting.
  • Several parliaments have introduced special COVID-19 committees to scrutinise the government response to the pandemic.
  • In most parliaments the committees, including COVID-19 committees, are meeting virtually.
  • Some parliaments have introduced virtual question-time where members can scrutinise government activities in relation to COVID-19.
  • Decisions (votes) are taken at physical sessions in the parliamentary chambers, except in Wales.
  • Internationally, only two national parliaments are holding full virtual plenary sittings – Wales and Brazil.

For further details check out the full briefing from the researchers at the Oireachtas Library and Research service note (29 April 2020): How parliaments are working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And for even more information about other parliaments across the world the Interparliamentary Union (IPU) webpage has the details Country compilation of parliamentary responses to the pandemic.


After the original publication of this blog, two further helpful documents have been published.

At the Scottish Parliament a number of Standing Orders have been varied or suspended for the duration of the public response to coronavirus. A document listing all of the changes has been published.

The House of Commons Library has also also published a report ‘Coronavirus: Changes to practice and procedure in the UK and other Parliaments’.

Simon Wakefield, SPICe Research