The Parliament of the Czech Republic was, like many others, considerably affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. When news came of the widespread outbreak, the whole office started taking preventive measures. Everybody who was able to work from home started working remotely. Not everyone could get a laptop at such short notice, however, so some officials had to use their own computers with a virtual private network (VPN) connection. Officials came physically to the workplace only during the plenary session or when it was not possible to carry out a particular task remotely. All visitors from outside Parliament were prohibited – even assistants to the MPs were not allowed to enter the building. Conferences and other meetings were suspended, and committees and commissions either cancelled their meetings or instead held online video conferences. There was inevitably a huge demand for online services and arranging everything took a lot of time and effort. Even ”normal” communication with colleagues was harder than usual, because every conversation had to be made by e-mail, phone, WhatsApp or other such means.
Reporting during crisis
There was an official agreement that, for plenary sessions, only half of the 200 MPs would be present at a time, with others having the opportunity to participate in the session later. That way, it was easier to maintain social distance and, if anyone became infected, at least half the MPs would be safe, unexposed to the virus and still able to safely assemble and vote in the session. At first, most MPs and officials were anxious about the virus and wearing facemasks was made obligatory for everybody in Parliament. There was strong pressure to keep plenary sessions as short as possible and to process only the most necessary agenda items in both the committees and plenary sessions.
During this time, the stenographers established in another office a dedicated, temporary session room, which replaced the plenary hall in our operations. The stenographers were able to keep their working methods, but did not have to physically enter the session. We had our usual MP3 recording of the session and online access to the TV broadcast. Stenographers listened to the audio, watched the TV and used pen shorthand as always. They each took notes for 10 minutes, as per our normal routine, and then a colleague would take over. A window was left open in the room at all times and colleagues entered for their turn only at the very last moment, just one minute before their turn. After that, stenographers returned to their offices and transcribed their shorthand notes on the keyboard as usual.
This meant that, in essence, we were taking our reporting turns in each session in our normal way, just not in the plenary hall. The objective was to reduce the risk of our officials becoming infected, especially as many of our older colleagues would be at a high risk if exposed to the virus. Technically, it would also have been possible to work remotely from home during plenary sessions, but we did not want to do this, because interaction with colleagues during parliamentary reporting works much better in person.
Experiences of the emergency practices
Generally, our experiences of working with these safety measures in place were quite positive. It is unusual for Czech MPs to call out when they are not on the microphone to interrupt or to disrupt the session, so the downsides were quite minimal. There were some instances when it would have been useful to be present in the plenary hall but, thankfully, these occasions were relatively rare and not very serious. We applied this working method for several weeks during the initial, most serious period of the pandemic. When discussing it in our office afterwards, we agreed that it was acceptable as an emergency procedure but not a suitable way of working under normal circumstances.
When the situation had improved enough, the stenographers returned to working in the plenary hall, wearing face masks for safety. It was decided that, for MPs, masks would be voluntary. The length of the sessions increased again, debates that had been calmer at the beginning of the crisis became more confrontational and so everyone gradually returned to the old way of doing things. When the numbers of infected people dropped substantionally and preventive measures were relaxed nationally in June, almost all MPs stopped wearing face masks, but the reporters continued to use them in order to avoid unnecessary risk. It was interesting to observe how quickly people stopped feeling that it was important to wear a mask to control the virus.
Reporters’ personal situations were made more complicated because of the pandemic. Some older colleagues who work as freelancers were afraid to work in the parliamentary building and preferred to stay at home, so they stopped working during the pandemic. Some younger colleagues, including myself, have small children who needed to be looked after, particularly during a period when schools and nurseries were closed. It was very difficult trying to combine working remotely from home, taking care of the children and helping them with schoolwork, and arranging everything so that it was possible to be present in Parliament during the plenary sessions.
As a result of the pandemic, we discovered that, in an emergency, we were able to work from locations other than the plenary hall – even from home when the plenary session was not active. It was a strong reminder, however, of our need, in normal circumstances, to be present in the plenary hall in order to feel the atmosphere, hear the occasional interruption and see any nonverbal communication, so that we can understand exactly what is going on during a session. Video can be very helpful, but it never gives the full picture.
We will see in the coming months whether we have to return to any or all of these emergency practices. The good news is that we are now prepared for it.
Pavel Dibelka is the head of the stenographic service of the Czech Parliament.