Coronavirus: Leader of the House Chris Hipkins reveals when Parliament will return in New Zealand

Leader of the House Chris Hipkins has revealed that Parliament will return next week during COVID-19 alert level 3 but with a smaller number of MPs. 

Hipkins said lawmakers will return to the Chamber on April 28, the first day of alert level 3, when some of the strict lockdown rules are lifted across New Zealand allowing roughly half a million workers to return. 

Politicians returning to Parliament will practise physical distancing in the Chamber, and many of the 120 seats will not be filled; similar to when the House sat in the days leading up to lockdown with only a handful of MPs present. 

Hipkins said while the normal sitting hours will vary, the public will be able to tune into question time, as well as watch ministerial statements, witness essential urgent legislation being passed related to COVID-19 and any other essential business related to Budget 2020. 

"The exact details for Parliament sitting next week will be confirmed following a meeting of the businesses committee tomorrow, but I do expect the sitting will adopt the same practises that New Zealanders across the country will use during their working day at level 3."

Hipkins said facilities within the parliamentary complex, such as the Copperfield's café and other catering facilities will not be available while the House is operating and there will be "as few people around the complex as possible". 

Hipkins said it would be preferable if MPs returning to Parliament could drive rather than fly, but some ministers - like Dunedin-based Health Minister David Clark - will have to catch a flight to Wellington. 

The Government will not progress its normal legislative programme during alert level 3. 

While Parliament has been closed during the lockdown, the Opposition has been holding the Government to account during videoconference meetings of the Epidemic Response Committee. 

Hipkins said while a decision has not yet been made on whether to continue the committee meetings during alert level 3, he said it might continue. 

Shadow Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee said the National Party supports the resumption of Parliament from next week. 

"Tomorrow, the business committee will discuss ways in which Parliament can convene and maintain the new social distancing rules as required under level 3 restrictions," Brownlee said. 

"Before the Budget can be read on May 14, subject select committees need to report their financial reviews to facilitate a financial review debate in the House.

He said National MPs, where possible, will travel to Wellington and be rostered in and out of the House to facilitate question time and the passage of legislation.

"We do not support Zoom arrangements for Parliamentary debates."

Hipkins' update followed the Ministry of Health's confirmation of just five new cases of the coronavirus in New Zealand, bringing the total number of cases to 1445. 

A woman in her 70s is the latest COVID-19 victim, bringing New Zealand's virus-related death toll to 13, while 1006 Kiwis have recovered from it. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday that the alert level 4 lockdown has been extended until a minute before midnight on Monday April 27, and then New Zealand will move into alert level 3. 

Public tours and school visits to Parliament were cancelled on March 16 to help limit the spread of COVID-19 and protect people in the precinct, after COVID-19 was declared a pendemic. 

Parliamentary Service general manager Rafael Gonzalez-Montero ordered a "deep-clean" of the Chamber, galleries and select committee rooms once a week in addition to the regular cleaning they receive.