Millions of New Zealand workers will soon be covered by mandates to be vaccinated against Covid-19, or potentially be forced to leave their jobs.
They include in education and the health and disability sectors, both in which workers are required to have had their first jab by Monday, with reports thousands of people may walk away from their jobs.
The mandates were also a focal point of protests this week, including one outside Parliament attended by several thousand people.
The mandates, used around the world, have broad political support. The latest Talbot Mills Research poll also shows strong public support – with 78 per cent agreeing with a vaccine mandate for health workers, and 76 per cent for teachers.
However, an expert says if introduced poorly they could backfire, further polarising communities and entrenching attitudes.
The mandates here are built around the public health response. Initially they were focused on border workers and those in managed isolation and quarantine facilities, to help keep the virus out, and frontline health workers caring for those who had contracted the virus.
As it became more evident eliminating the virus was impossible, the focus has turned to workplaces where employees could come into contact with vulnerable people – people still at high risk despite being vaccinated themselves.
The health order reads: “The purpose of this order is to prevent, and limit the risk of, the outbreak or spread of Covid-19 by requiring certain work to be carried out by affected persons who are vaccinated.”
Subsequently mandates have been introduced for the health and disability sector and education sector. In both these sectors workers will need to have had their first dose by Monday, and be fully vaccinated by January 1.
The mandates follow similar trends across the globe, have been used through history, and have broad political support here.
Covid-19 Response and Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government would work closely with teachers and others affected.
There were similar concerns with the port worker mandates, but these largely did not eventuate, he said.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Government had “applied a very careful process”, looking at the risk profile of different workplaces, but it was “hard to know” how long they would be needed.
The mandates also have the support of unions and Business NZ.
They have been brought in alongside a largely very successful vaccination campaign that has seen 90 per cent of the eligible population aged over 12 get one jab, and 80 per cent now fully vaccinated.
(For context 81.5 per cent of the enrolled population voted last year).
Despite this, there have been reports some schools stand to lose as much of half their staff. Some firefighters too – covered by the health mandate – have spoken out, and many of those protesting on Tuesday said they were doing so because of the mandate.
National Immunisation Advisory Centre director and GP Dr Nikki Turner said this reaction was not surprising.
“Normally you would get time to get people on board, for them to be able to learn about it and ask the questions. But this is a pandemic, and so it is hard when it is suddenly brought in.”
Mandates operated differently around the world. Culturally, Americans were more used to mandates, whereas in New Zealand they were not typically used, Turner said.
The vast majority of eligible people here had chosen to take up the vaccine, for myriad reasons, but likely in response to the looming threat of Covid-19.
Indeed once Delta arrived in the country daily vaccination rates tripled initially.
Turner said mandates were a delicate balance between protecting the vulnerable and individual rights, and risked backfiring if they were not well-targeted, balanced and communicated.
This was particularly true in communities with history of dispossession or bad experiences with authorities.
“That’s why we need effective health services to work alongside, not just wave a big stick.
Turner said the mandates were similar to legislation around smokefree areas.
Like with smokefree areas, the mandates were not about forcing people to be vaccinated, but the health impact on others of not being vaccinated.
“A lot of people will be working in environments with others who are vulnerable even if they are vaccinated, and that’s what this is about.”
Health and disability sector
From Monday, November 15, the majority of the health and disability workforce must have received one dose, and be fully vaccinated by January 1, 2022.
On Monday this week, DHBs said 95 per cent of the roughly 80,000 people who work for them across the country had had at least one shot. But this meant about 5000 people remained unvaccinated.
Due to their close contact with health practitioners, firefighters were also covered by this mandate.
St John this week said 95 per cent of staff in patient-facing roles have had their first dose and the “vast majority” have had their second dose.
A mandate for police is under discussion, as the number of police staff vaccinated hovers around the national rate. As of Wednesday 88.8 per cent had their first dose and 79.4 per cent the second.
From Monday, November 15, those working in the education sectors must have received one dose, and be fully vaccinated by January 1, 2022.
The mandate covers anyone who works, volunteers, or does unpaid work in education and who either has contact with children or students, or will be at an education service when children or students are present.
It is unknown exactly how many people this will cover and current vaccination levels.
Some schools have reported strong objections from staff, and some of those protesting this week were teachers and even principals.
Education union NZEI, said it had seen a surge in calls to its helpline, both from employees and employers, seeking to understand their rights and responsibilities.
A new amendment to the Public Health Order gives Education Minister Chris Hipkins the power to make exceptions for non-vaccinated school staff if their absence could cause significant disruption to children’s learning.
Traffic light system
Once all DHBs reach 90 per cent full vaccination for their eligible populations the country will move to the new Covid-19 Protection Framework, also known as the traffic light system.
This includes different settings – green, orange and red – but involves a move away from lockdowns and broad restrictions with a heavy focus on vaccinations. Thus people will be required to be vaccinated to enter certain “close proximity” locations, including hospitality.
Other businesses and institutions will also be empowered to use their own discretion around requiring vaccine certificates. Already many businesses, councils and even the public sector are discussing mandates with their workforces.
It is estimated when this framework kicks in the mandate will cover about 40 per cent of New Zealand’s workforce.
Mandates already in force:
Border and MIQ
Workers at the Border and in MIQ settings are required to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
Corrections workers needed to have their first dose by November 6, and second dose by December 8.
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