Ministers have been accused of bungling plans for MPs to return to parliament in person, after the government said this would happen next week despite the lack of any way for voting to take place safely.
The move by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader, to end the interim virtual sittings, in which MPs have been able to speak and vote remotely, had already been heavily criticised for discriminating against older MPs and those with disabilities or chronic illnesses, who do not want to put their health at risk by attending in person.
Rees-Mogg had said MPs would set an example to the rest of the country by voting in person, but in a letter to MPs on Thursday he said this would be impossible, because Public Health England (PHE) had advised that it was unsafe for MPs to be walking through different lobbies to vote.
Despite this, the Commons will sit physically on Tuesday after a week-long recess. It will start at 11.30am rather than 2.30pm to debate a government motion on how to proceed.
In a letter to MPs the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, said he had agreed to the government plan: “Now that I have agreed to a recall on Tuesday, it is for the government to decide what proposal for voting it wishes to put forward.
“I have been clear to the government and to opposition parties that I would prefer cross-party agreement to be reached about the way in which the house should conduct its proceedings when the house returns, including on how divisions should take place.”
Hoyle said the PHE advice on voting had changed, and it was clear that “the house simply cannot conduct divisions safely via the lobbies”.
He wrote: “There are pinch points in the lobbies where MPs are recorded by clerks and counted by tellers where it would be difficult to maintain social distancing, even though perspex booths were prepared for two of the division desks.” Such votes would also risk taking longer than allowed under parliamentary proceedings, he added.
Hoyle said that if the government and opposition were unable to agree a way forward, he would allow amendments to the government motion for new procedures.
Valerie Vaz, the shadow Commons leader, said it was the “latest example of the government in chaos”. She said: “Jacob Rees-Mogg tried to abolish the hybrid remote parliament, which allowed all MPs to take part regardless of their personal circumstances, without any prior notice and against all advice on the last day parliament met.
“He has bungled it and is now forcing parliament to return early solely to correct his earlier discriminatory move.”
Pete Wishart, the Cabinet Office spokesman for the SNP, tweeted: “The government wants us to come back to a parliament that can’t work. An absolute joke.”
A Commons debate on resuming physical sittings before the recess heard concerns from a series of MPs. The former Conservative minister Robert Halfon said the proposals would discriminate and threaten the lives of some MPs.
“Is it really morally just to say in effect to MPs, because you are not Tarzan-like and able to swing through the chamber, beating your chest shouting to your constituents: ‘Look, I am here!’ that you are effectively euthanised from the Commons?” he said.