MEPs call for more to be done to help staff working from home during pandemic

Call comes after European Parliament went into effective lockdown in bid to curb sharp rise in Coronavirus cases.

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

13 Nov 2020

The institution’s bureau, parliament’s decision making body, said the central register of attendance would be temporarily closed from 2 to 30 November. It said that only those physically chairing meetings or participating in trilogues can “attest their attendance directly in the Chamber or meeting room.”

The reason given for what is an unprecedented shutdown was an “alarming situation” with regards to the spreading of Coronavirus “especially in Brussels. The suspension of the attendance register means most MEPs can currently no longer claim their daily allowance of €323 which is supposed to cover accommodation and related costs.

Parliament’s president David Sassoli, speaking during this week’s plenary, said that despite the shutdown and ongoing efforts to combat the spread of the virus there had still been “hundreds” of cases of MEPs and parliamentary staff either infected or having to self-isolate.

The Italian member also defended the decision to suspend the attendance register, saying this was necessary to help slow the spread of the virus on Parliament's premises.

But, speaking to this website on Thursday, Irish Renew Europe Group MEP Barry Andrews was among those voicing concern at the current situation, saying, “Clearly the Parliament needs to strike the balance between protecting staff in the short term and the need for democratic accountability across the European Union when critical trilogues are ongoing and require physical meetings.

“Protecting staff doesn't necessarily require further restrictions. A practical step would be to provide staff who are teleworking with the hardware and software needed to fulfil their duties remotely.”

"We are confronted with the same challenges as all Europeans and we must lead by example. That means refraining from travel and in-person meetings when not absolutely necessary. But we also need to have improved conditions for staff working online. That means better schedules, more interpretation, faster translation and improved IT. I know this is being discussed” Renew Europe Group MEP Nathalie Loiseau

Andrews added, “At present many staff are struggling with their home wifi for example or could do with access to a printer.”

His comments are partly echoed by French Renew Europe Group MEP Nathalie Loiseau who, also speaking to this website, said, “To me, it's normal that we telework as much as we can in such circumstances. We are confronted with the same challenges as all Europeans and we must lead by example. That means refraining from travel and in-person meetings when not absolutely necessary.”

She added, “But we also need to have improved conditions for staff working online. That means better schedules, more interpretation, faster translation and improved IT. I know this is being discussed.”

Polish EPP Group deputy Danuta Hübner is particularly critical, saying, “We are in a situation where there are people in Parliament who do not respect the safety and hygiene rules and there are other people who have to pay for this”.

“I do not know the statistics but each time I have been entering Parliament in the last few months I was shocked by the low level of awareness of the safety rules. This is in spite of hundreds of security employees on site. There appears to be nobody to say to the cohorts of, in particular, young people that they are breaching the parliament’s rules by failing to adhere to the rules. These safety rules are obligatory."

The former European commissioner is also unhappy about the effective lockdown of Parliament, adding, “I am told we are the only locked down Parliament in Europe.

“Currently, we have a ban on MEPs’ participation in meetings in parliament, except for chairs who are allowed to be in the room along with administrative staff and technicians.

“After serving for more than 26 years as a member of this distinguished house I never thought that I would witness this self-destruction. Why are all Parliaments located in Brussels able to work but the European Parliament is not?” German EPP Group MEP Markus Ferber

“MEPs are forced to use national offices of the parliament if they want to speak in plenary. For some, though, this means travelling up to 500km to get to these offices which are often no more ‘safe’ than facilities in Parliament in Brussels.”

Hübner said, “All this is sad because millions of people in Europe have to go to work every day while respecting rules of social distancing.

“And yet, we MEPs, despite parliament investing so much on testing facilities and the like are 'banned' from doing the work we are obliged to do. We should not be reduced to the role of a voting machine.”

German EPP Group member Markus Ferber, in an email to other MEPs, accused Sassoli of “disabling instead of enabling our work."

He said, “After serving for more than 26 years as a member of this distinguished house I never thought that I would witness this self-destruction. Why are all Parliaments located in Brussels able to work but the European Parliament is not?”

German Greens/EFA co-leader Ska Keller is less critical but also said there was room for improvement, telling this website, “The European Parliament is fully operational but as everyone else, we have to work remotely as much as possible. By transferring more and more interaction to the digital sphere we can ensure that the parliamentary business keeps running during the pandemic, which is most important”.

Regarding the current number of Coronavirus cases, a Parliament spokesman explained, “The figure mentioned by the president in plenary this week - 171 cases of Coronavirus up to end of October - is the result of a major screening effort to trace back contacts and to avoid in-house transmission chains. The majority of the cases detected as positive are asymptomatic and placing these people in quarantine has helped prevent further contamination.

“Combined with the decision of the president to have all meetings remotely, the contact tracing policy is bearing fruit and we can see the number of cases detected decrease in the past days”.

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