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Parliament to resume sitting but remains closed to the public

The Parliament will resume sitting next week but shall remain closed to the public in an effort to avoid the spread of COVID-19. This was announced this afternoon by Speaker Tony Smith and Senate President Scott Ryan announced in a joint statement this afternoon.

“The measures are as strict as possible and align with previous arrangements implemented in early 2020 to minimise non-essential activity at APH while still enabling sittings to proceed,” reads parts of the joint statement.

The Senate and the House of Representatives will sit from Tuesday 3 August to Thursday 2 September. From Monday 2 August to Friday 3 September, only members, senators, parliamentary service staff, and media passholders will be able to visit the building.

However most politicians will participate remotely while fewer MPs and Senators will attend in person, and only essential ministerial, shadow ministerial, party spokespersons, and whips’ staff can accompany them. Sixty per cent of regular parliamentary departmental staff will work remotely. Public servants and journalists should not attend unless on essential business. School visits and other events will be cancelled or postponed.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said the decision was designed to deter the parliament from turning into a super spreader. The Minister said concern was raised as politicians and staffers were coming from across Australia including NSW.

“It shows that they are taking the situation very, very seriously – that they are taking the welfare of not just ACT residents but the whole country seriously, because a seeding event in Parliament House could then potentially spread to any other jurisdiction around the country,” said Stephen-Smith

Parliament needed to continue to function, she continued. “There’s often urgent legislation that needs to be passed, and there is an accountability element to the operation of Parliament. … Further delaying the return of Parliament does have some significant implications for our democracy. And so, I think what we want to see is that Parliament will operate safely.”

Although South Australia will reopen its borders tonight, and Victoria could end its lockdown soon, NSW has seen COVID numbers climb: 145 new cases yesterday, and two deaths over the weekend.

“We are obviously exposed to New South Wales; the situation in Greater Sydney presents the greatest risk to the ACT of any other situation around the country,” said Stephen-Smith.

Recent exposure sites in Goulburn and Marulan and positive wastewater testing at Moss Vale had heightened public concern, she noted.

The Minister added that The ACT Government was monitoring the situation in NSW very closely.

“We have a lot of plans in place about the various things we could do in multiple scenarios.”

One of those plans could be a regional travel bubble encompassing Queanbeayan, Jerrabomberra, Murrumbateman, even Bungendore – areas where residents commuted to Canberra. People who travel to the ACT every day for work, shopping, or school needed to travel backwards and forwards across the border without a significant impost on them, she said.

Meanwhile, the ACT Government is offering 4,000 more appointments across its two vaccination hubs per week, of which 2,000 are for frontline workers (health care, aged care, and disability workers).

The ACT Government would not send its Pfizer vaccines to Sydney.

“We cannot establish a hard border between the ACT and New South Wales,” Ms Stephen-Smith said. “We are exposed to their situation, and so it’s really important that we continue with our vaccination program.”

It was also “a numbers game”, she argued: the Commonwealth provided an additional 50,000 doses to New South Wales out of their contingency reserve – more than three times the ACT’s weekly allocation of Pfizer vaccines; a third of those vaccines every week went to people getting their second doses.

“By the time you take into account what we could possibly free up for New South Wales, we would have to give up our first doses of Pfizer for weeks and weeks and weeks, just to get to that 50,000 that the Commonwealth has been able to take from their contingency reserve … If New South Wales wanted to reprioritise within their own allocation, obviously, that would be up to them.”

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