11 Feb 2022

Covid-19: Omicron outbreak may empty Parliament's debating chamber

8:48 am on 11 February 2022

There could soon be as few as two MPs in Parliament's debating chamber as the Omicron outbreak grows.

Parliament's debating chamber sits empty

Parliament's debating chamber sits empty. File photo Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Parliament is already running at half-capacity with only 60 out of its 120 members allowed into the chamber at any given time.

As MPs scale back travel and in-person meetings the Business Select Committee - which organises the running of Parliament - has been preparing for a scenario where all MPs are self-isolating.

Leader of the House Chris Hipkins said Parliament now had a variety of contingency plans in place if politicians can't physically be at Parliament.

"Over the last few months, the Office of the Clerk have worked to test a variety of different things, including Parliament meeting almost completely remotely to having hybrid parliamentary sessions, whereby those who are okay to come into the debating chamber can, and those who have to isolate because they close contact can still participate, but using a remote video link."

This 'hybrid' model could be scaled all the way back to just having two MPs in the debating chamber.

"Parliament's rules are clear that the only two people who have to be in the debating chamber for parliament to sit at the Speaker and a minister, because that's effectively a Parliamentary quorum.

"So as long as you have that in the debating chamber, and you could do that with them sitting at either end of the chamber to meet the rules, everyone else could be via video link."

The shift could mean even the more raucus parts of the House - like Question Time where MPs get to grill the government - go online.

ACT and National refused to let Parliament sit virtually during last year's August outbreak - claiming the prime minister was trying to avoid scrutiny.

Both parties' positions on a virtual Parliament has now softened but National MP Chris Bishop - also a member of the Business Committee - said it's still early days.

"We're some way away from that but a discussion around a hybrid Parliament or a virtual Parliament, like you've seen in Australia, the United Kingdom and many other jurisdictions, is under consideration and on the table."

The ACT Party said it now supported a virtual Parliament but only as a last resort, adding it was because of the government's strict isolation requirements that MPs would be prevented from attending in person.

It's not yet clear if MPs will be among those eligible to use rapid antigen tests in the 'test to return to work' scheme but Hipkins says Parliamentary staff have been ruled out.

"One of the things we're in a fortunate position of being able to do though, is even if we ended up with a lot of ministers and a lot of MPs at home, we can still function from home."

Changes already made to proxy voting means one MP can now vote on the rest of the party's behalf without those MPs needing to physically be in the builidng.

So far the sitting schedule for the year remains unchanged but Parliament's settings are being reviewed on a weekly basis.

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