Scott Morrison was advised last week by Australia’s chief medical officer that anyone who attends his Canberra residence should be vaccinated against Covid-19 and take daily saliva tests – advice that was not followed in relation to journalists at recent press conferences.
On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, the prime minister held press conferences outside the Lodge, where he is quarantining after returning to Canberra from Sydney.
The press conferences were attended by reporters who were required to wear masks and check in using QR codes to reduce risk – but not all were fully vaccinated and none had been required to undertake saliva testing.
The Labor senator Katy Gallagher, a former ACT chief minister, queried the safety of the arrangements at the Covid committee on Friday, including how the prime minister was able to call the press conference when other parliamentarians were in stricter two-week quarantine ahead of parliament returning on 3 August.
“I understand your concern for ACT residents,” the chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said adding he too was a resident of the ACT, which has enjoyed a remarkable year-long streak without community transmission of coronavirus.
Canberra recorded another day of zero cases on Friday, although local authorities are preparing a regional bubble with neighbouring parts of New South Wales in the event of further spread of Covid-19 from Sydney, after exposure sites were named in Goulburn and Marulan.
ACT COVID-19 update
Friday 23 July
▪️ Cases today: 0
▪️ Active cases: 0
▪️ Total cases: 124
▪️ Recovered: 121
▪️ Lives lost: 3
▪️ Test results (past 24 hours): 979
▪️ Negative tests: 260,966
▪️ Total ACT Gov administered vaccinations: 118,758
— Andrew Barr MLA (@ABarrMLA) July 23, 2021
In his written advice to Morrison on 18 July, Kelly said “the travel of members and senators who reside in Sydney to the ACT presents a significant risk to ACT residents, particularly those who work in the Australian Parliament House”.
“A transmission event within APH also has the potential to impact the function of government due to quarantine and isolation requirements, as well as the broader public health restrictions required by ACT Health.”
Kelly said that a “small group of vaccinated individuals” could attend the Lodge, but he recommended “the addition of mask-wearing and daily saliva testing for anyone attending or moving in and out of the Lodge to further mitigate that risk”.
With respect to press conferences, risk could be reduced “if attendees are fully vaccinated, strict mask use, physical distancing and utilising an outdoor venue”, Kelly said.
“On balance, to minimise disruption to the operation of the APH and risk of transmission in that setting, my advice is that these could occur at the Lodge.
“With these extra precautions, a very small, but not zero risk would remain that Covid-19 could be seeded into the ACT community.”
Kelly said the guidelines had been reached by “common understanding” with the ACT chief health officer, Dr Kerryn Coleman.
Kelly told the committee that Coleman was responsible for the health of the ACT population, the presiding officers set the rules in parliament, and that he had no “statutory responsibility” but provided advice to Morrison and the commonwealth government “from time to time”.
Asked if Morrison was following the advice, Kelly demurred, responding that how the advice was operationalised was “up to the individual” and that he was not monitoring compliance.
Gallagher complained that many of her colleagues “are not leaving their apartments” in order to attend parliament but Morrison was subject to a “different set of arrangements”.
She noted Kelly had suggested the Lodge as a press conference venue to reduce the risk of spread in parliament – but Morrison had then attended his office in parliament to celebrate the announcement of Brisbane as the host of the 2032 Olympics.
ACT public health orders require people who are self-isolating not to leave their premises and not to allow others in, but the ACT government believes Morrison’s activities are allowed by exemptions for essential work.
Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference at the Lodge on Wednesday. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP
On Wednesday, an ACT Health spokesperson told Guardian Australia that requests from parliamentarians for quarantine exemptions were referred to the commonwealth government and the health department relied “on the employer to determine what is essential work”. Guardian Australia contacted Morrison for comment.
The Covid committee on Friday also heard from Lt Gen John Frewen, the head of the vaccination rollout.
Frewen gave updated statistics revealing that 47.2% of aged care workers have had their first vaccine dose and just 27.8% are fully vaccinated.
Some 50.9% of disability care workers have had a first dose and 27.3% are fully vaccinated.
The health department secretary, Prof Brendan Murphy, defended the fact staff vaccination rates lagged behind residents, despite both being in category 1A, explaining this was done because of international experience about staff absences after vaccination.