The number of visitors, dignitaries and members of the media who will be in attendance at the first session of the Ninth Parliament on August 20 has been severely curtailed owing to the COVID-19 prevention guidelines.
There are 674 seats in the visitors’ gallery, 96 seats in the VIP section and 65 in the media gallery of the Parliament Chambers. In accordance with COVID-19 operational guidelines, Parliament staff will ensure that a person is seated only on every other seat to maintain physical distancing.
A senior Parliament official said they would probably have to limit the number of persons in the visitors’ gallery to between 275 and 300, while the number of those allowed into the VIP section and the media gallery would also be limited to about half the number of seats.
“Given the large number of new MPs who have been elected this time, we will do our best to admit two members of their immediate family into the visitors’ gallery. We may only be able to admit one immediate family member of other MPs,” the source added.
Journalists who miss out on watching the proceedings from the press gallery will still be able to watch them on television from Parliament’s Press Room.
Face masks are mandatory for everyone in Parliament including those in the Chamber. Under the operational guidelines handed over to Parliament by the Health Ministry, MPs have been instructed not to remove or pull down their masks even while speaking, while all those entering the Chamber must first use hand sanitizers installed at the entrances.
While physical distancing is not possible within the Chamber as far as the seats are concerned, MPs have been instructed to only sit in their designated seat and avoid cross movements within the Chamber. Whenever members are not seated, they have been advised to maintain a 1m distance from each other at all times in the Chamber. Members have also been discouraged from shaking hands or hugging and have been asked to adopt other non-touch greetings. MPs will also be told not to share personal items such as mobile phones, headphones and pens.
Parliament officials expect that the first session on August 20 will be the most difficult for them in ensuring that the guidelines are adhered to since all 225 newly elected MPs will be present on that date. “Usually, the number of those in attendance drops significantly afterwards and we normally have only about 125 or so MPs at the most on other sitting days. So it will not be difficult for us to enforce the guidelines after the first sitting,” an official noted.
The Sunday Times understands that Parliament has been informed to allocate 151 seats for MPs in the government benches. Seats are allocated based on seniority and there is no room to allocate all government MPs seats on the government side. As such, officials will allocate seats for the junior government MPs on the back row in the opposition benches according to alphabetical order.
Meanwhile, the traditional orientation programme for newly elected MPs will be held online this time.
(Source: The Sunday Times – By Damith Wickramasekara and Sandun Jayawardana)