Lockdown legislature: Behind the scenes as the Senedd copes with coronavirus

Video report by Political Editor Adrian Masters

Faces are popping up on a screen one by one. They're in the homes or offices all over Wales and a team of clever IT people is bringing them together for another meeting.

Headsets are checked. Mics are muted. Like any video conferencing meeting, there are glitches and some confusion. "If you don't mind muting your mic please," one organiser asks one attendee. "I will if I can find it," is the reply.

This is no ordinary video meeting though. This is the virtual Senedd, the way the Welsh Parliament has been holding its debates since coronavirus forced those in charge to close its buildings to all but essential security and maintenance staff.

Those buildings are somewhere I normally spend a lot of time, but I haven't been inside for three months. I've arranged a time with Senedd officials for when I can come in with a camera operator colleague. We have to sign in and out and are accompanied by an official at all times.

The complicated work making the virtual Senedd possible takes place in a small room on a committee corridor, normally used for translation services.

Making the virtual Senedd work Credit: ITV News

When I was there I watched from a distance as Dyfed Evans ensured the smooth switching between speakers, as first the Llywydd opened proceedings and then members questioned the First Minister.

He referred to a problem you may have noticed in your own video meetings.

“It can be quite difficult to remember where people are," he told me. "When people leave the meeting as you see there it all jumps around a little bit. With almost 50 people it’s very difficult so you’re about to switch someone’s mic on and in that second everything jumps around.”

As the Llywydd or Presiding officer, Elin Jones has been at the centre of it all. I met her in her office - the first time since March that she's chaired the virtual Senedd from anywhere other than her sofa at home in Aberaeron. She told me how strange that experience has been.

“I guess the most extraordinary feeling is the fact that you’re sitting on your sofa chairing the Senedd at one point and then Ann Jones the deputy, she takes over for a particular time. I then go to the kitchen to empty the dishwasher or to do something very practical like that and then within a few minutes and a few metres I’m back chairing the Senedd.”

It was eerily quiet throughout Ty Hywel, the office block connected to the Senedd where MSs and support staff spend most of their time. Head of Estates and facilities, Nerys Evans told me how different it's been.

Nerys Evans is in charge of the Senedd estate Credit: ITV News

Those people have been carrying out essential maintenance but also adapting the buildings. From the moment that you go through security the changes are clear. Signs direct you through one way systems. Hand sanitiser stations are dotted about. Floors are marked out with yellow stripes marking two metres.

In normal times, the Ty Hywel canteen is one of the most bustling areas. It's where MSs, staff and journalists meet, eat and gossip. On the day I visited it was silent and empty, of course. But it had also changed in a more radical way.

The Senedd canteen prepared for social distancing Credit: ITV News

As well as one way signs, floor markings and hand sanitisers, the large number of tables had been dramatically reduced. Single tables stood with single chairs tilted against them. When more people are allowed back in they will only be able to sit alone at a table. When they leave the table and chair will be thoroughly cleaned and the chair once again tilted to show that the work has been done.

And there will be people to use this strange new facility. From this week, the Senedd will meet in hybrid form. Twenty members will be physically present while forty will continue to take part via video.

Some have been calling for this to happen more quickly. The independent MS Neil McEvoy staged a solo protest in the chamber to say that if school pupils could go back, so could politicians.

I asked Elin Jones if she'd recognised that political pressure. “I’ve been personally supportive of moving towards a hybrid model," she told me. "As with all walks of life some members of our Senedd have been more nervous of returning to a physical workspace and some wanted me to go more quickly. I have to make sure the hybrid Senedd is workable and all the technology that needs to support that is doable and that it is within regulations."

The chamber has already been prepared for the hybrid meeting.

Forty of the chairs will be removed when it's worked out which twenty members will be sitting in the chamber. They'll only be allowed to sit in their own chairs, marked by photos on the back of those chairs. Stickers with a TICK and a CROSS will show which part of the curved desks the chairs can be placed at.

Nerys Evans told me that “we’ve actually had our tape measures in the chamber" to work out two metre distances. A team of cleaners will be on hand for when the Llywydd and her deputy change places.

There'll also be a new form of electronic voting using a specially developed app. Members and staff have been trialling it this week.

"The right of an individual to cast their own vote on behalf of their electors is an important part of parliamentary work," Elin Jones said. "We’ve had to put that on hold and vote via weighted group votes up until now but we’re now developing again and we will be introducing individual electronic voting so nobody will be queuing as in other parliaments.”

This parliament was already going through a time of transition - after all, it had only just changed its name to Senedd or Welsh Parliament. Coronavirus has forced big changes on the way it worked. And it's about to cope with more unusual and unexpected changes.