Coronavirus: Border workers who refuse vaccine to be removed from frontline jobs

About 5 percent of the border workforce have refused a vaccine.
About 5 percent of the border workforce have refused a vaccine. Photo credit: Getty / The AM Show.

By Jane Patterson of RNZ

Any border worker who refuses a vaccination will soon be removed from their frontline job.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says they can't force people to take the jab, but nor is it acceptable to have unvaccinated people working in New Zealand's main protection against the virus ravaging other parts of the world.

He said he would never make immunisation mandatory, as that runs the risk of hardening any anti-vaccination stance.

About 5 percent of the border workforce have refused a vaccine, for a variety of reasons. They have been the first group of New Zealanders to get the vaccine, given their high risk working conditions.

The Government has always been reluctant to talk about anti-vaxxers, but prefers to talk about vaccine "hesitancy".

Whatever the reason, some border staff are refusing to get the jab, as Hipkins explained to Parliament's health committee.

"There's a distinction between saying 'in order to do a particular type of job, you need to be vaccinated', and saying, 'if you're doing that job, you need to be vaccinated'.

"One's okay, and one's not," he told MPs.

Not everyone refuses on moral grounds, he said, giving the example of someone who's pregnant and may be happy to be vaccinated after her baby is born.

"On the other hand, if there is a small group, and it looks like it's going to be a very small group, who just say, 'well, I'm not going to be vaccinated', then that's the more difficult conversation - we have to say to them 'well, you can't do the job you've been doing because you haven't been vaccinated'."

Soon no-one without a vaccination would be working on the frontline whatever their reason, Hipkins said, but a "hard and fast" deadline had not been set.

"But there are some things that we're working through," he told the committee, "including, if you look across our MIQ [managed isolation and quarantine facilities], some are run by big chains where the redeployment options are plentiful, some are quite small employers, so therefore, we have to sort of think through all of that with them."

Support from National

It's an approach backed by the National Party and its COVID-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop, who said they'd support any legislative or regulatory changes needed to make it happen.

"I think most people would find it reasonable that the Government says, we're trying to keep COVID out of the community and if you work at the border or in MIQ, you have to be vaccinated after a certain period of time."

Border workers were in a special category, though, and he said it'd be a "different story" for the rest of the country.

"We're not saying that there should be mandatory vaccinations around New Zealand, but for people working at the frontline at the border, I think most people would say that's pretty reasonable."

'Significant amount of consultation' needed

Employment law advocate Ashleigh Fechney said it was a very tricky part of the law - balancing the Bill of Rights, under which you can refuse a vaccine, against health and safety legislation.

The people refusing were "absolutely being disadvantaged" but the question is "whether that's unjustified".

Even with the higher risk for MIQ and border workers, there "still needs to be some consideration in terms of a person's rights", she said.

"They might be people that perhaps can't get the vaccinations because of their own health reasons. It might not be anything to do with morality or ethical or any kind of belief around the vaccine, and so there will need to be conversations."

She emphasised she personally would have a vaccine and was not an anti-vaxxer, but people refusing a jab - which can be for a range of reasons - deserved representation.

And there could be alternative options, Fechney suggests, rather than just taking them out of their job.

"Is there any allowance for those employees to wear masks, gloves, hand sanitiser, and to have safe practices; what are the effects of that compared to the vaccine?"

She did not know whether those sorts of conversations had taken place, but "would be expecting quite a significant amount of consultation".

The Government's stance could act as a precedent for other employers with employees refusing vaccinations, Fechney said.

"The concern is that, because this is so open and and so widely publicised, other employers are going to pick this up and just assume they can do the same without getting legal advice.

"And the reality is, this is unprecedented and personally, I would not want to take that step without getting legal advice, because there are some significant risks," she said.

This was "without a doubt" going to end up being contested in the courts, Fechney said, likely first in the Employment Court, but one that could end up going much further and potentially take years to resolve fully.