MPs need to find hands-off way to stay in touch

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OLD habits die hard, but kissing babies and shaking hands may become a lost art for politicians.

The advent of COVID-19 is seeing a rewriting of the rules when it comes to greetings.

Bodily contact is out, and keeping “social distance” is in.

News that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton tested positive for novel corona-virus three days after attending a Cabinet meeting in Sydney on Tuesday 10 March, turned apprehensive eyes towards his ministerial colleagues. Had they been infected?

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quick to say he wouldn’t be tested and had every intention of going to Saturday’s (14 March) football (he later changed his mind and didn’t attend).

Flinders MP Greg Hunt, who is also the federal Health Minister and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Cabinet, was seen shaking hands while visiting Mount Martha Primary School on the same morning that Mr Dutton’s positive test and hospitalisation was announced.

After being told about the hand shaking at the primary school, The News sought comment from Mr Hunt:

As health minister and with the federal government’s increasing warnings about the inevitable spread of COVID-19, did he see any problem in people shaking hands?

Did he have any advice for how people should, at this time, greet or acknowledge one another?

Was he at the Tuesday 10 March Cabinet meeting?

Where and when was Mr Hunt most recently in direct physical contact with Mr Dutton?

Did Mr Hunt know before arriving at the primary school that Mr Dutton had tested positive for the virus?

Instead of addressing the questions, Mathew Langdon, one of Mr Hunt’s staffers, sent two paragraphs “attributable to a spokesperson”.

Reminded by The News that the the questions could not have been avoided if they had been asked of Mr Hunt on TV or radio, Mr Langdon provided a link to a statement by the prime minister.

Approached again for a statement from Mr Hunt – or “a reply, attributable to someone, saying Mr Hunt would prefer not to answer questions” – The News finally received two paragraphs “attributable to the minister”. They were same words sent hours earlier “attributable to a spokesperson”.

For the record, here is Mr Hunt’s reply, which does not answer the questions asked by The News:

“The Chief Medical Officer and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer have confirmed that no Cabinet Minister was in contact with the Minister for Home Affairs during any period of infectivity. Queensland Health has also affirmed the dates.

“In terms of personal hygiene, the medical advice of the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee comprising all Chief Health and Medical Officers emphasises hand washing and covering of any coughing. It does not advise against hand shaking. I have been following these national Health guidelines and will continue to do so.”

Mr Dutton’s illness wasn’t taken lightly by some of those he had mingled with in the United States days before the Sydney Cabinet meeting.

President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who had met with Mr Dutton in Washington on Thursday 5 March, chose to work from home, and New Zealand’s Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin went into self-isolation on her return home.

Ms Martin sat next to Mr Dutton during a 90-minute meeting.

Whatever the outcome of the spread of COVID-19, changes in the behaviour of politicians is certain to give new meaning to the phrase “charm offensive”.

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