New Zealand’s border has been closed for 588 days. Auckland has been in lockdown for 73 days. The Government has indicated the only way out of this is vaccination, and in some workplaces, it has mandated that. It has set a higher vaccination goal than has been achieved anywhere else in the world.
This week, the Government announced new laws will be introduced and passed quickly to specify where vaccination will be mandated for workers; to introduce a clear and simplified risk assessment process for employers considering vaccination for different types of work; legal steps to fire non-vaccinated workers; and a requirement for employers to provide paid time off for workers to get vaccinated. There will also be work done with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to provide practical guidance on how to ensure workers’ vaccination (health) records are handled appropriately.
It will be good to have some clarity, as requiring vaccination is a legal minefield for employers, companies and boards. There is no doubt that even when this law is passed, it will be challenged. We don’t want to see all the liability on the employer.
Employers will potentially be faced with firing good employees they have had in their companies for many years because you cannot, and nor should you, force people to be vaccinated if such an action does not align with their beliefs.
Transporting New Zealand will contribute to the law-making process on behalf of our members, as it normally does.
At this stage, mandatory vaccination is not a requirement in the freight industry. However, it will be in some of the industries serviced by trucking and there is an indication that food producers with export markets will mandate vaccination of workers. So, there will be some tricky employment matters and customer relationships to unpick.
We have done two industry surveys since the most recent lockdown began to assess how vaccinated our industry is and where the roadblocks might be. The most recent was in the past couple of weeks and had a high response rate from Road Transport Association New Zealand members, with the data representing about 10,000 staff members in our industry.
From the survey, the vaccination rate in our industry for Auckland is about 77 percent and for Waikato, 71 percent. We are concerned these are low when compared to vaccination rates of the national population, per District Health Board (DHB), which has percentage rates of 90, 93 and 88 percent for Waitemata, Auckland and Counties Manukau DHBs respectively, and 85 percent for Waikato.
From our survey almost 70 percent (67.25%) of respondents had actively encouraged or arranged vaccination for staff.
The biggest barriers to staff that had not yet been vaccinated were:
- 32% of operators which represent 43% of unvaccinated staff responded that: General hesitancy around needles or whether the vaccine works was the biggest barrier
- 29% of operators which represent 39% of unvaccinated staff responded that: Beliefs was the biggest barrier
- 13% of operators which represent 5% of unvaccinated staff responded that: Time was the biggest barrier
- 2% of operators which represent 4% of unvaccinated staff responded that: Distance from vaccination centre was the biggest barrier
- 24% of operators which represent 8% of unvaccinated staff responded that: Other reasons was the biggest barrier.
We also asked operators how they would manage if the Government made vaccinations mandatory for drivers crossing Covid-19 borders. Most, 72 percent, could continue to provide the similar level of service to customers, but 28 percent would have the level of service effected to some degree.
That is a concern because we already have a shortage of drivers and a seriously compromised supply chain.
We appreciate that for employers, there are more questions than answers on vaccination. However, we all need to be aware of the Government’s high target of 90 percent of every DHB area double vaccinated. This will impact all businesses in some way.
The public messaging can get murky. Just this week at the Prime Minister’s post-Cabinet press conference, Health Director General Ashley Bloomfield said: “There is a low likelihood of transmission from someone who might be driving a truck out of Auckland and coming back, especially if they are on a regular testing regime”. That would suggest mandatory vaccination for truck drivers would not be necessary if they were being regularly tested, as is the case for those going in and out of Auckland.
We will continue to advise the industry as clear direction comes to hand. In the meantime, as per existing health and safety and employment law, determinations must be made on a risk basis – what is the risk and what is the best way to mitigate it?
As the only country in the world still locked off from everyone else, our only way back to normality is getting the vaccination rate up.
Interestingly, the Prime Minister in speaking to the East Asia Summit this week said that “countries should resist going down a path of isolationism and nationalism”. Sadly, the response to Covid-19 in New Zealand has seen the rise of both.
- Nick Leggett, CEO, Transporting New Zealand