Keeping Parliament clean in a pandemic

Keeping Parliament clean in a pandemic

For much of the past year Westminster has felt deserted.

When Boris Johnson delivered his stay-at-home orders last March, London SW1 changed overnight.

The tea rooms fell silent. The pubs shut. And the seemingly endless corridors emptied, save for a smattering of hand sanitising stations.

But as many MPs zoomed into debates from the relative comfort of home, the staff of the House of Commons Heritage Cleaning team were ever-present in the Palace of Westminster.

“I love working here,” says Elizabeth Rubiopuello. “There are so many important people that have been walking up and down the same corridors for so many years.

“We have to go everywhere, sanitising everything, because it’s important to have the place as safe as possible for the people who are still working here.”

Members of the team have had concerns about using public transport to get to work.

“Last year, the first months were scary,” says supervisor Imelda Hughes.

“Everybody was scared, but we take precautions, we have sanitisers and the managers kept telling us, ‘Wash your hands and sanitise your hands as much as you can.’ We follow those things and especially the social distancing.”

Imelda is standing in Members’ Lobby, an area immediately outside the House of Commons chamber, lined with statues and busts of former prime ministers.

Like everyone in the team, she has had specialist training in how to take care of the items found in the Grade 1-listed palace.

“We don’t only clean the offices, but we look after the statues, the brass, the stones,” she says, while dusting a bust of former prime minister Stanley Baldwin.

“We have to be really gentle taking off the dust because these are really precious stones.”

The heritage cleaners are predominantly female and foreign-born, and fiercely proud of their work.

“It’s a great privilege for me to clean this,” says Imelda. “It’s the history of our country.”

Through the large double doors at one end of the lobby, Dolores Gonzalez stands at the despatch box.

It’s early on Wednesday and, in a few hours’ time, Boris Johnson will be in the same spot, facing Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minster’s Questions.

But for now, the iconic chamber belongs solely to Dolores.

“Always I check everything is ready for Boris Johnson when he comes,” she says.

She’s using a new type of sanitiser developed for use on the palace’s most delicate items. Regular alcohol-based products could damage the artefacts.

Wooden desks, leather-bound green benches and metal grilles housing speakers are all given the same careful treatment.

“When they debate, when I see on the TV, I always make a big smile,” says Dolores, “because I can see the chamber is so clean and nice. I check everything and I say to my son every day, ‘Look, look at the chamber; it’s so nice and shiny’.”

The cleaners say that through the pandemic their work has become more appreciated.

MPs and clerks stop to thank them for helping to keep everyone safe and the Speaker recently gave them an award for their outstanding contribution to Parliament.

The lack of visitors means they have been able to focus on areas they wouldn’t normally prioritise.

Two staff work full-time cleaning the Commons’ huge collection of books.

Outside the main library room, the corridor is decked from floor to ceiling with volumes.

Hefty tomes on the historical role of women in Parliament dominate one cabinet. The Collected Speeches of Ann Widdecombe is housed in the next.

The team aims to clean every book at least once a year.

In Committee Room 14, Adeola Oluokun is vacuuming the carpets.

The previous night, the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs met here to discuss the UK’s vaccine rollout.

Adeola is a particular fan of Parliament’s artwork. Committee room 14 is home to The Flight of the Five Members, an oil painting depicting the MPs whom Charles I tried to arrest in the run-up to the English Civil War.

Adeola’s work is a reminder of what she’s achieved. When she first came to the UK she used to travel past the Palace of Westminster on the bus.

“I’d look at people coming in and say, ‘Oh, wow, I hope one day I work there,'” she says. “And it happened for real.”

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