The whole focus of the Covid fight is now going to swing to reaching the 90 per cent vaccination target.
Only then will borders be able to open, and lockdowns cease.
Though 78 per cent of the country have had one vaccination, the vaccination rate is slowing, and there are questions beginning to emerge about why the rate is slow and what the rights of workers and employers might be.
A Select Committee this week heard that one reason vaccine rollout among Maori is slow is because there was no real plan for Maori in the first place.
And employers are asking the Government for the right to insist on “no jab no job” policies in their workplaces but face opposition from the Combined Trade Unions (CTU) and, it would seem, Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood.
Even National Leader, Judith Collins, believes there are some work situations where “no jab no job” need not apply.
This is in contrast to the United States, where most major companies like Deloitte, Facebook, Ford, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Netflix, the New York Times and Uber are all requiring all employees to be vaccinated.
Mandatory vaccination is one of a number of issues arising as the country faces a slowdown in the vaccination rate.
The Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, has said we need to reach an overall rate of 90 per cent before the borders can re-open and lockdowns can end.
The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, yesterday made it clear that everything depends on vaccinations.
“Once you’ve vaccinated New Zealanders, you have the ability to change the way that you deal with outbreaks substantively, and so that is what we have been saying for quite some time,” she told Parliament yesterday.
“But, for now, we continue to operate in Auckland with very clear public health protocols, isolating cases, and using heavy restrictions that we have because we do not have a fully vaccinated population.”
One consequence of that is that though Auckland may go down to Level Two on Monday, the borders between it and its Level Two neighbours to the north and south will not re-open.
Ardern confirmed at her Covid media conference yesterday.
But what must worry her is that the daily vaccination rate across the country is slowing.
Last week, daily first vaccination rates averaged 21,007; this week, up till Wednesday, they nearly halved to 10,346.
Thus, if the rate continues to fall, the country faces the prospect of a much longer wait for open borders and an end to lockdowns.
Though the Ministry of Health reported yesterday that total first vaccinations are now at 78 per cent, the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, has said that 90 per cent with two vaccinations was a target the country should work towards.
If there are significant numbers of unvaccinated people, this will pose a threat to workplaces where unvaccinated workers could spread Covid to vaccinated workers.
(Even with two vaccinations, people may still catch Covid. Singapore is 82 per cent double vaccinated, but this month has recorded 26,088 cases and 38 deaths.)
Alan McDonald, Head of Advocacy & Strategy at the Employers and Manufacturers’ Association (EMA) told Newshub’s “The Project” last night that the main issue for employers was that there was no clarity on what their rights were in treating vaccinated people and unvaccinated people in the workplace.
The Health and Safety at Work Act provides for a balanced framework to secure the health and safety of workers and workplaces by protecting workers and other persons against harm to their health, safety, and welfare by eliminating or minimising risks arising from work.
Employers argue that Covid is a health and safety issue.
But there are legislative obstacles. The Privacy Act does not require an employee to say whether they have been vaccinated, and the Bill of Rights Act says that everyone has the right to refuse to undergo any medical treatment.
Possible solutions would be special legislation to allow employers to implement a “no jab no job” policy or alternatively an approach similar to that currently employed on drug testing for workplaces.
In a paper published on Wednesday, the Combined Trade Unions (CTU) said that whether an employer could demand that a worker be vaccinated would depend on the job the worker was doing.
“Before a business decides to require that work be undertaken only by a vaccinated worker, the task must be risk assessed,” the paper said.
“In doing so, it must be demonstrated that a worker does, in fact, require a vaccination to carry out the role.
“This risk must still exist after all other appropriate controls have been implemented.”
But an employment relations expert told POLITIK that was not the point.
The question was whether the unvaccinated worker might infest their colleagues.
The Employment and Work Places Minister, Michael Wood, appears to agree with the CTU.
“What is clear, you see, is that in workplaces, employers can conduct health and safety assessments to determine whether for certain roles it might be appropriate to require vaccination,” he told “The Project.”
“We encourage people and support people to take up the vaccine if we have assessment processes to work out whether some roles really do require it.”
United States President Biden has ordered that businesses with 100 or more employees ensure that all workers are either vaccinated or get tested weekly for the coronavirus, with paid time off to get their shots.
The new rules also require vaccinations for federal workers and for contractors doing business with the federal government, as well as for workers at healthcare facilities that receive funding from Medicare and Medicaid.
“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” Mr. Biden warned unvaccinated Americans, “and your refusal has cost all of us.”
There are also issues here emerging with the Maori vaccination rate. It is lower than the overall rate, particularly among younger Maori.
Te Kaha GP, Dr Rachel Thomson, told Parliament’s Health Committee on Wednesday that one reason Maori vaccination rates were low was that there had been no plan involving Maori to deliver the vaccine. That meant the vaccination programme in areas like hers on the East Coast was behind where it should be.
“The problem has been is that there was no plan, particularly for Maori communities like mine, and that we had plenty of time to do that,” she said.
“So it’s frustrating that there wasn’t a plan that involved the vaccine rollout for Maori, and if we’d started looking at the evidence and targeted right at the beginning with the people who most needed and were most going to be affected, it would have been helpful, and we would not now be on the back foot.”
She said as a GP; she faced a number of obstacles in getting certified to deliver the vaccine.
“We had to fight our way in; we had to actually find out about it and fight our way in initially to get the right to vaccinate, to get registered as a site and jump through all of those hoops,” she said.
“And was only because we were so desperate because we knew we’d been through that period of worry that our people are so vulnerable on the coast, with all of the previous pandemics had already got us in quite a heightened state.
“So we were in there and discussing it with the DHB.
“But it took a lot of work.”
We are now entering a phase in the management of Covid where details like this (and the rights of employers) are going to matter if we are going to reach a 90 per cent vaccination target.