Vaccine status to determine freedoms for politicians when Federal Parliament returns

Fully vaccinated federal politicians and staff from COVID hotspots will be able to skip a fortnight's quarantine in Canberra ahead of October's sittings and estimates hearings. Dion Georgopoulos
Fully vaccinated federal politicians and staff from COVID hotspots will be able to skip a fortnight's quarantine in Canberra ahead of October's sittings and estimates hearings. Dion Georgopoulos

Fully vaccinated federal politicians and staff from COVID-hit NSW and Victoria will be able to skip a fortnight's quarantine in Canberra ahead of October's sittings and estimates hearings, under new ACT Health guidelines.

But unvaccinated people will be subject to 14 days of isolation, creating a two-class system in federal politics.

A revised application process also asks politicians to disclose which brand of the vaccine they have received, although ACT Health says that detail won't factor into its "risk assessment" of the traveller.

A least one Sydney-based MP has already decided not to travel to Canberra amid confusion over the new regime.

The Canberra Times has seen the document setting out the guidelines for politicians and staffers wanting to travel to the nation's capital next week from COVID hotspots.

It reveals that vaccination status will now be considered as part of ACT Health's case-by-case assessment of essential worker permits.

Just six permits had been processed as of Wednesday, although authorities expect to receive more in the coming days. ACT Health has asked people to submit applications no more than three days prior to travel.

Federal Parliament is due to return on October 18 for a fortnight of sittings, which includes a week of budget estimates hearings and the formal election of a new Senate president to replace Scott Ryan.

ACT Chief Health Officer Kerryn Coleman has endorsed new rules for politicians and staffers travelling to Canberra for this month's sitting week. Picture: Karleen Minney.

ACT Chief Health Officer Kerryn Coleman has endorsed new rules for politicians and staffers travelling to Canberra for this month's sitting week. Picture: Karleen Minney.

Politicians and staff from locked-down Sydney and Melbourne were forced to arrive early in Canberra in order complete 14 days of mandatory home quarantine before the sitting period started on August 23.

But the rules will be different this time around, with Canberra and Sydney set to emerge from long COVID lockdowns in the week before parliament returns.

Unvaccinated people from COVID-affected areas will be required to isolate for 14 days, under revised guidelines endorsed by ACT Chief Health Officer Kerryn Coleman and Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly.

MORE COVID-19 NEWS:

Fully vaccinated travellers would be able to avoid a fortnight's home quarantine, but their movements would be restricted based on where they have come from. Those from local government areas with no active cases would be able to leave home from essential reasons, including to work, exercise and shop for groceries.

Restrictions on politicians and staff from areas with active cases would depend on how freely the individual has moved in their local community in the 14 days prior to travelling to Canberra.

People who have undertaken "significant movement" could be restricted to moving between only their accommodation in Canberra and Parliament House, under a similar type of exemption to the ones granted in the past to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

Staff will only be considered for an exemption in "exceptional circumstances".

The application form politicians and staffers are required to fill out includes a range of personal questions, including which brand of the vaccine they have received, how many doses and when.

An ACT Health spokeswoman said the question was to ensure the person had received one of the Therapeutic Goods Administration-approved vaccines. However, the spokeswoman said the vaccine brand wouldn't factor into its risk assessment.

The decision to restrict or allow freedom based on vaccination status is somewhat at odds with the ACT government's approach, as Chief Minister Andrew Barr has been adamant that he wouldn't create a two-class system when Canberra reopened.

Asked about Mr Barr's stance, the spokeswoman said the comments had been in relation to vising public spaces and accessing services.

The spokeswoman said parliamentary sittings remained a "high-risk" setting due to the large numbers of people who congregated from across the country, including COVID hotspots. The presence of Canberra-based staffers in Parliament House also increased the risk of transmission into the local community.

The Canberra Times understands the new guidelines have caused confusion among parliamentarians. At least one fully-vaccinated Sydney-based MP from an electorate with low case numbers has chosen to remain at home because they couldn't get immediate clarification from ACT Health about what restrictions they would be subject to in Canberra.

MORE COVID-19 NEWS:

The guidelines create a grey area for people travelling from places which have COVID-19 cases, but in very low numbers, such as in parts of regional Victoria and NSW.

The ACT Health spokeswoman said if a fully vaccinated person arrived from an area with active cases, the risk assessment would be based on their movement in the community over the previous fortnight. Whether they had been in contact with a positive case or attended an exposure site would be factored in, she said.

Canberra's lockdown is set to lift on October 15, meaning restaurants and bars will be open at reduced capacity in time for the start of the sitting period.

The ACT Health spokeswoman said politicians and staffers would be required to adhere to the terms of their exemptions, meaning even those able to skip quarantine would be barred from entering hospitality venues.

She said the new guidelines were being trialled as part of an "evolving process" around assessing and reviewing travel arrangements as Canberra starts to reopen.

All other travellers from NSW and Victoria require a permit to enter the ACT and are required to isolate for 14 days upon arrival.

This story Vaccine status to determine freedoms for politicians ahead of Federal Parliament's return first appeared on The Canberra Times.