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UK parliament remains open, but increasingly deserted

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London (AFP)

British MPs were told to stay away from their weekly question time with the prime minister on Wednesday over fears of spreading coronavirus, as parliament remained open but became increasingly deserted.

Around 25 lawmakers -- including a cabinet minister -- are already thought to have isolated themselves for fear of infecting others as the outbreak accelerates across Britain.

London has been particularly badly hit, and a leading disease expert who advises the government warned on Wednesday that the area around parliament was a hotspot.

"There is a lot of COVID-19 in Westminster," Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London tweeted, as he announced that he himself had developed symptoms.

Parliament had already closed its doors to the public and shut its bars after Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday told Britons to avoid all unnecessary social contact to try to slow the outbreak.

Many MPs have asked staff to work from home, and employees across the parliamentary estate are staying away this week.

On Wednesday, the main political parties advised their lawmakers to avoid the weekly prime minister's questions (PMQs) unless they had already been allocated a question.

As a result, the green benches of the House of Commons -- which only seven days ago were packed with MPs for the annual budget statement -- were largely empty.

Those MPs who attended sat a distance apart, as did reporters in the press gallery. The public gallery is now closed.

"Those watching our proceedings will have noticed that our attendance today is significantly below the normal numbers," Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle told MPs.

He said he had been discussing "ways in which we can limit the numbers of people crowded together to ensure maximum safety".

Business Secretary Alok Sharma told the BBC earlier: "It is very important that parliament continues to operate."

But he added: "The way that we interact in parliament of course may change."

- Bars shut -

Ministers are still providing regular updates to parliament on coronavirus, and legislation will be introduced on Thursday to give the government new powers to tackle the outbreak.

But several non-urgent committee hearings have been cancelled, and much of the parliamentary estate is slowly winding down.

The main bars, which are normally packed with MPs, staffers, researchers and journalists, have closed over the last couple of days.

"The last two weeks, it's been much quieter anyway," said Alberto, the manager of the Woolsack, a traditional-style pub accessed off an internal courtyard.

Staff are being moved to other restaurants which remain open, he told AFP, while adding: "At the moment, we're taking it day by day."

In Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the estate that is normally filled with visitors, there were only a few solitary security guards.

"There's always people here. But now it's like a ghost town," remarked one official.

In the unelected upper chamber the House of Lords, where many members are in the higher risk over-70 group, attendance has been slowly declining.

Official figures showed 315 peers came in on Monday, down from 463 a week earlier.

The coronavirus outbreak has sparked calls for a change in the way parliament operates.

Currently MPs must vote in person, with only a limited scheme for proxy ballots, but officials are debating how this might be stepped up.

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