Alok Sharma, the business secretary who showed symptoms of coronavirus, has received a negative test result amid opposition warnings that the scare showed how easily Downing Street and Westminster could be thrown by a fresh outbreak.
Sharma was tested after feeling unwell on Wednesday while delivering a statement in the House of Commons. It emerged that over the previous 24 hours he had attended a meeting with Boris Johnson and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and stood close to other MPs as he queued to vote in the Commons.
At the time of his statement MPs were sitting at least 2 metres apart and afterwards the area around the dispatch box was given a deep clean. “This was done as a precaution,” a House of Commons source said.
However, Sharma’s suspected illness raised concerns about the government’s decision to bring back parliament in its physical form, after weeks of allowing MPs to attend via video link.
Amid concerns that cabinet members and MPs could be asked to self-isolate, Sharma disclosed on Thursday evening that his test had come back as negative and they could return to work.
“Huge thanks to everyone for their really kind messages over the last 24 hours and my grateful thanks also to the parliamentary authorities and Speaker for their support yesterday. Just had results in and my test for Covid-19 was negative,” he wrote on Twitter.
His spokeswoman did not immediately respond when asked if the cabinet minister would have to continue to self-isolate; there are concerns that tests may not come back positive in the early stages of infection.
Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs welcomed the result, but said the scare had shown the weaknesses in a return to a physical parliament where MPs have to queue to vote.
Footage showed Sharma in the Commons standing close to the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, and voting just before the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock.
Barry Sheerman, the Labour MP for Huddersfield, said on Twitter that he was relieved Sharma had tested negative, but that “doesn’t mean that the reintroduction of physical presence voting is not stupid”.
Daisy Cooper, the Lib Dem MP for St Albans, also welcomed the negative result, but added: “This should still be a wake up call for Rees-Mogg. Govt should lead by example: support ppl2 work from home where they can (as per its own guidance), embrace digital & stop needlessly risking health of MPs& staff.”
MPs on Thursday challenged the Commons Leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, for ending virtual voting, with Labour criticising the “shambolic” long queues MPs have to form to vote, which have been dubbed the “coronavirus conga” and take up to 90 minutes to complete.
Senior Conservatives, opposition groups and the equalities watchdog raised concerns that the decision to end digital voting would prevent many MPs, particularly elderly and vulnerable politicians who are shielding, from being able to vote.
In a further development, Sharma, the minister responsible for workplace safety, is facing an industrial dispute in his departmental office over coronavirus fears.
The PCS union has told members who are cleaners, security guards and postroom workers in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) that the department has failed to provide sufficient evidence of safety measures, and advised them not to return to work.
Sharma had attended the departmental office in Westminster on the day he fell ill and neither BEIS nor the outsourcing firm told the workers, the union claimed.
The business department has been approached for comment.