Focus/Spotlight

Inaugural session of ninth parliament on 20 August | New Covid changes for new House

By Skandha Gunasekara
The Ninth Parliament of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka will see a host of new changes including digital integration of administrative facilities as well as the introduction of the “new norm” brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

Soon after the health guidelines for the election campaign of the 2020 parliamentary election were issued, officials at the Ministry of Health were quick to begin work on a separate set of guidelines for the new Parliament and its sessions which were to follow.

Lead medical expert tasked with formulating health guidelines, Ministry of Health Deputy Director General (Environmental Health, Occupational Health, and Food Safety) Dr. Lakshman Gamlath told The Sunday Morning that they were able to submit the guidelines by the end of July.

“We submitted the health guidelines for Parliament sessions to Parliament Secretary General, Dhammika Dasanayake on 31 July. The basic guidelines have been elaborated for various settings.”

He said it covered the entire Parliament and its functions from the chambers, lobby, and canteen, to even the library premises.

“We have given them a specific guideline for each location which must be implemented when Parliament recommences,” he said.

With regard to the chambers, he noted that seating arrangements will not be changed as there was already a distance of one metre between parliamentarians when seated.

“The seating will work in the existing system as although there isn’t a metre between two desks, there is a metre between two individuals. It is also difficult to change the seating as there are 225 seats which are affixed to the chamber floor. However, there is adequate space of one metre between MPs once seated. In addition, we have suggested that they wear face masks at all times.

He said that additional measures include restrictions on MPs from changing seats.

“They have to sit in the same seat and cannot move around and sit in other seats. Members and other staffers working in the chambers must wear masks and maintain a distance of one metre.”

He noted that hand sanitisation at all entrances is vital.

“When entering the chambers they must sanitise their hands. Also, before entering the lobby they must sanitise again. Each and every entrance – including the elevators – must have sanitisation options.”

Further, Dr. Gamlath said that sanitisation played a major role in the health guidelines for Parliament.

He said that guidelines on hand sanitisation with alcohol sanitiser, after the use of common equipment and tools such as computers, were also included.

“Guidelines to sanitise equipment have also been given. For example, computers must be sanitised after use and when switching users. In the library, we have advised them to use hardcopy newspaper as little as possible and to instead opt for the online version as much as possible, and if someone uses the common newspaper, we have told them to sanitise their hands afterwards. We have also advised them not to share items that are normally used by multiple persons. For example, mobile devices, headphones, and stationary items such as pens, pencil, and papers cannot be shared,” he said, adding that sanitisation procedures must be carried out on all places which persons frequently come into contact with.

Meanwhile, the digital upgrade of certain administrative functions of the Parliament has also been executed for the new Parliament.

The Parliament is to introduce an online registration system for new MPs, The Sunday Morning reliably learnt.

“Earlier, all members had to come to Parliament to give their particulars, a description as to how they’re going to take oaths, etc. This time, we will have an online registration portal so that MPs don’t have to come to Parliament,” Secretary General of Parliament Dhammika Dasanayake told The Sunday Morning.

He said the online portal will be accessible once the Election Commission (EC) issues the relevant gazette declaring the new Parliament.

“We have already set up the portal so maybe next week, once the EC issues the gazette for the new Parliament, we will see to it that the link for the portal is shared among all the MPs so that they can send their details.”

A digital picture along with the relevant details can be sent once the MPs receive their password for the online portal.

“Once the MPs are declared through the gazette and we know the MPs, we can send each MP a password so that they can access the portal and submit their details along with a digital photograph. This way, we can take all preliminary steps with the assistance of such information,” he said, noting that the portal would be on the official Parliament website itself.

Dasanayake said this was an initial step to modernise the administrative aspects within Parliament, in addition to being a Covid-19 protection measure.

“It is an anti-coronavirus measure as well as an overall advancement to make our systems more efficient. We have compiled a common set of forms on the online portal so that all information is put together which can then be communicated to the relevant departments in Parliament automatically. Each section will get the information they require.”

As at Thursday (13), around 190 parliamentarians had registered via the newly introduced online portal, The Sunday Morning was informed.

Chief of Staff and Deputy Secretary General of Parliament Neil Iddawela said that as at 11 p.m. on Thursday, around 190 MPs had registered.

“More than 190 new MPs have registered, including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa,” Iddawela said.

He went on to say that he believed the remaining parliamentarians would all complete their registration by the end of the week.

Furthermore, with the increase in the number of parliamentarians within the Government, the Deputy Secretary General of Parliament said that a number of them would have to be accommodated in the Opposition side of the House.

“There are 116 seats on either side of the chambers so with the additional MPs on the Government side, around 34 of them would have to sit on the Opposition side of the aisle.”