1 Nov 2021

MPs question Parliament's additional isolation rule

4:08 pm on 1 November 2021

With MPs in alert level 3 areas wanting to return to Parliament, Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard says discussions are ongoing about whether the rules will change.

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Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard sets the rules for Parliament, and says discussions are "ongoing" about the current isolation requirement. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The rules of Parliament mean MPs in level 3 areas - currently Auckland and parts of Waikato - must return a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours of returning to Wellington and isolate for five days before coming to Parliament. The five-day isolation rule only applies to Parliament.

Some will not return to their electorates this recess week due to those rules, and others are stuck in Auckland.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is under pressure to travel to Auckland, but she says the rules make it too difficult to maintain her other obligations.

She told Morning Report she was constantly thinking about the restrictions in Auckland and their impact.

"There is not a moment in a day that I'm not thinking about how we can ease the pressure in Auckland, how we can improve this situation, how we can continue to manage this outbreak as effectively as possible," she said.

Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"It does impact on my accountability in the debating chamber, it impacts on my ability to front before the media and in a practical sense if I were to travel there the most likely groups I would meet with our health team and business leaders I've been [meeting with] remotely anyway," she said.

"In order to meet with them would likely be breaking some of the rules we expect others to follow. So those are my considerations."

National leader Judith Collins said that was no excuse.

"It's been three months now since she's been in her own electorate, it's not good enough. She's the MP for Mt Albert, she needs to set an example, an example is being with her people.

"She could have gone end of last week to Auckland, she would be able to do her media from Auckland ... it's not impossible, it's not like Auckland doesn't have broadband.

Judith Collins

Judith Collins Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"What I think she doesn't want to do ... she doesn't want to actually talk to the small business owners and to see them crying."

Collins said there was a deep sense of frustration in Auckland and a sense of being forgotten by the government.

She has returned to Auckland for this week of recess, when Parliament is not sitting, and will be isolating before returning to Parliament next week.

By contrast National's Port Waikato MP Andrew Bayly went into isolation for the last sitting block, but said he would not be going home.

"If I go home I've got to ... go through the same process again of getting a negative Covid test before I leave Auckland, go back to Wellington where I must isolate for five days, get another Covid test before I can return to Parliament.

"The time it takes is basically seven days that I've got to spend ... I've made a call not to go. I can't say my wife's very happy about it."

Bayly said he wanted the rules to be reviewed.

"We're like everyone else ... literally in a situation where many people are having to live apart. I probably won't be back to home until early December at this rate, so it's pretty difficult situation for us, but for everyone really in Auckland and Waikato."

Collins said she did not understand the logic behind the additional requirements for those at Parliament.

"It's really causing a great deal of angst for a lot of our Auckland MPs ... we've got tougher rules than truck drivers, and I don't understand quite what the logic is."

She said she could make it work however - just like Ardern could if she wanted to.

Green Party co-leader Mārama Davidson is returning to Wellington for when her co-leader James Shaw leaves for the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow next week and is spending 10 days in isolation instead of five.

"Especially given that I'm in South Auckland, my community and places that I frequent ... have been locations of interest many many times," she said. "Making sure that I did everything I absolutely could to negate or minimise the real risk of bringing Covid from Auckland as much as possible."

She said the Speaker was right to be cautious.

"We were also very aware of the mood of the community, the mood of Aucklanders, to be very very safe if any of us - especially politicians - are going to be moving around the country."

The party's Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick said rather than relaxing the rules, a virtual Parliament was the obvious solution.

"Unfortunately that was shot down by the leaders of the ACT, National parties because they preferred to hear their voices reverberating around that wood-panelled chamber when all of their Auckland-based MPs at that point in time could easily have participated via a kind of zoom Parliament."

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Green MP for Auckland Central Chlöe Swarbrick has been in isolation, and says MPs were given the option of a virtual Parliament which would have let them contribute even in lockdown. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

She said public health advice was constantly changing based on the available evidence, but "simply politicking and saying 'well, things have to change because I reckon that they they have to change' is a far cry from evidence-based policy".

"It was shut down so it makes no sense to me that there is now a complaint that people cannot participate from Tamaki Makaurau."

She said she hoped a kind of hybrid model which had been used in other jurisdictions could be explored.

However Mallard's office gave little away.

"The Speaker has nothing further to add to the current information at this time, other than that discussions are ongoing."

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