UK business minister’s illness stirs virtual parliament debate

A video grab shows Britain’s Business Secretary Alok Sharma wiping his brow as he makes a statement in the House of Commons in London on June 3, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 04 June 2020

UK business minister’s illness stirs virtual parliament debate

  • Many lawmakers complained after having to stand in a long queue in order to take a socially distant vote on Tuesday
  • Business Secretary Alok Sharma’s shaky appearance on Wednesday only added to their concern

LONDON: Britain’s business secretary was tested for the coronavirus Thursday and went into self-isolation after sweating through a speech in parliament that reinvigorated a debate on whether lawmakers were ending virtual sessions prematurely.
UK politicians have been fighting for days over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to end remote video conference sessions that began when the virus was still spreading fast in April.
Johnson is trying to coax frightened Britons to start taking their children back to school and resume some semblance of the old way of life because the virus — after officially claiming more than 40,000 lives — is now slowly fading.
But his efforts to get lawmakers back into the House of Commons have run into problems.
Many complained bitterly after having to stand in a long queue that twisted through the halls of parliament in order to take a socially distant vote on Tuesday.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma’s shaky appearance on Wednesday only added to their concern.
The 52-year-old mopped his forehead with a handkerchief and rubbed his face several times while trying to finish a speech at the podium.
Several alarmed lawmakers later noted they had stood in the queue next to him during Tuesday’s vote.
Sharma’s spokeswoman said the minister was “feeling unwell” but did not specify if he had the virus.
“In line with guidance he has been tested for coronavirus and is returning home to self-isolate,” she said.
The House of Commons said a deep cleaning of the chamber has been performed as a precaution.
The main opposition Labour party’s business spokesman Toby Perkins said it was “ridiculous” for Sharma to show up to work sick.
“It was the height of irresponsibility for him to be in parliament sniffling, sweating and snorting from the despatch box,” he added.
Labour’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Lisa Nandy said “reckless doesn’t even begin to describe” the government’s decision to end virtual parliament hearings.
Lawmakers will vote later Thursday on whether to allow those in the high-risk category or aged 70 and over to vote by proxy.
But government minister Brandon Lewis denied that Sharma’s illness supported the opposition’s case for homeworking parliament sessions.
“It is important for parliamentarians to be able to properly scrutinize legislation,” Lewis told the BBC.
A poll by YouGov showed that just 12 percent of UK respondents thought lawmakers should have to vote in person during the health crisis.


Ethiopia says suspects confessed to killing popular singer

Updated 59 min 5 sec ago

Ethiopia says suspects confessed to killing popular singer

  • Hachala Hundessa became a symbol of the Oromo struggle during years of anti-government protests that swept Abiy to power in 2018
  • Though Abiy is Ethiopia’s first Oromo head of state, Oromo nationalists accuse him of insufficiently championing their interests since taking office

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopia’s attorney general said Friday that two men had confessed to killing a popular singer from the Oromo ethnic group as part of a plot to topple Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government.
Hachala Hundessa became a symbol of the Oromo struggle during years of anti-government protests that swept Abiy to power in 2018.
His shooting death last week sparked days of protests and ethnic violence that killed 239 people, according to police figures.
“The assassination was intended to be a cover to take power from the incumbent by force,” attorney general Abebech Abbebe said in a statement Friday aired on state television, without providing details.
Though Abiy is Ethiopia’s first Oromo head of state, Oromo nationalists accuse him of insufficiently championing their interests since taking office, a complaint echoed by many protesters last week.
Abebech said that along with the two men who have allegedly confessed to the crime, the government has identified a third suspect who remains on the run.
One of the men in custody identified the masterminds of the alleged plot as members of a rebel group the government believes is affiliated with the opposition Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) political party, Abebech said.
The OLF, a former rebel movement, returned to Ethiopia from exile after Abiy took office and has repeatedly disavowed any links to armed insurgents.
The Internet remained shut off Friday for an 11th consecutive day, though Addis Ababa remains calm and Abiy’s office issued a statement saying the surrounding Oromia region had “returned to calm and citizens have resumed normal activities.”
In her statement, however, Abebech said unnamed agitators were calling for additional protests and road blockages in the coming days.
“There are those that have hidden themselves in nice places but are calling on Ethiopian youth to fight each other, close roads and to cease working as part of a rebellion call,” Abebech said.
“Above all we call on our people to disobey this rebellion call and to thwart it.”