Federal Parliament returns with toughest ever COVID-19 lockdown restrictions

Speaker of the House Tony Smith. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Speaker of the House Tony Smith. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

As Federal Parliament returns from the long winter break, the presiding officers are assuring Australians that coronavirus safety is their highest priority and they have gone above and beyond local ACT Health requirements in putting the people's house into COVID-19 lockdown.

Speaker of the House Tony Smith and Senate President Scott Ryan have also told The Canberra Times there is "virtually no risk" from anyone from the Greater Sydney lockdown area, and politicians hailing from affected areas of Queensland are severely restricted and must produce a negative COVID-19 test prior to entry.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has finished quarantining at The Lodge, while Labor leader Anthony Albanese is working in his parliamentary office under under tight restrictions after being in Queensland before arriving in Canberra.

"Parliament meeting as safely as possible has always been our priority - both for the ACT and for those returning to other parts of Australia," the Speaker and President said in a joint statement.

"This is the first time we have gone substantially above the local ACT Health requirements and returned the building to an effective minimum staffing level as was the case last year."

Four out of the next five weeks are Parliamentary sitting weeks, but there are fears the virulent Delta variant of COVID-19 spreading in greater Sydney and Brisbane could turn the gathering of federal politicians and staff into a "super-spreader" event when people return to their communities.

The building will be closed to the public and all event bookings have been cancelled or postponed.

A third of MPs and senators will be attending Parliament remotely via video-link, including many from greater Sydney and a late notification from the Defence Minister and Leader of the Government in the House, Peter Dutton.

His sons attend a school subject to the current Queensland Health directive and the minister, while testing negative, remains in his Dickson electorate in quarantine.

Industry Minister Christian Porter will take over his Leader of the House duties.

Other Queensland-based MPs and senators were flown to Canberra on government aircraft before the lockdown started. They have been in quarantine but they are allowed to attend Parliament under tight "essential worker" restrictions.

Labor senator Murray Watt, who is in Canberra, says it is important that "we get the opportunity to speak on behalf of our communities there".

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Tony Smith and Scott Ryan, who are both not contesting the next federal election, insist Parliament will proceed safely.

"Anyone from the Greater Sydney lockdown area attending has already completed quarantine and multiple tests, so there is virtually no risk from those people, no one from that area has been exempted from the quarantine requirement," they said.

"Those from the affected areas of Queensland are subject to ACT stay-at-home orders that limit movement to essential elements only; we have also had them tested prior to entry of Parliament House."

All senior federal politicians bar five younger MPs have been vaccinated against COVID-19 ahead of the sitting.

There's an uncommon quiet in Federal Parliament ahead of the resumption of proceedings.

60 per cent of parliamentary departmental staff are working remotely, and MPs' and senators' offices have been reduced to "very limited" essential staffing in the building.

There's nowhere to casually sit, with signs warning that seats are "unavailable". Food outlets are takeaway only and physical distancing and masks are required.

There are also heavy restrictions on pass holders and the fitness centre and pool are closed.

This story The House returns, but not as you've ever seen it before first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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