Coronavirus: Health officials consider changing vaccine availability for port workers following Tauranga Delta scare

Health officials are considering making changes to COVID-19 vaccine availability for port workers amid the Delta variant scare in Tauranga.

Until now, only workers interacting with ships and crew were entitled to a vaccine - just a fraction of the workforce at the ports.

Until now, only workers interacting with ships and crew were entitled to a vaccine - just a fraction of the workforce at the ports.

Charles Finny, who is the independent chair of the Port Company CEO Group, says they've been trying to change the rules to allow all workers to get the jab.

"We've been arguing for that for months," he says.

He said he met with Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield about the issue on Tuesday.

"We were told yesterday and Dr Bloomfield agreed with us that that didn't make much sense," Finny says.

"There was definitely frustration and we're very pleased that we have got the rules changed."

Dr Bloomfield confirmed on Wednesday he’d met with Port CEOs and agreed he’d talk to DHBs about “ensuring that access could be widened to really anyone that touches the ports.” 

However, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry told Newshub a decision is yet to be made on expanding eligibility to all people interacting with our country’s ports. 

“Some policy work has been done on this but it’s under consideration,” the spokesperson said. 

The Government's messaging so far, even from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday, had been that vaccines were always available for port workers.

"They have been able to access a vaccine since the very beginning of our rollout. We prioritised port workers," she said.

Group 1A port workers, or those interacting with ships, and their household members, have been given priority through vaccination sites set up at some ports. 

But National’s Chris Bishop, who is the party's COVID-19 response spokesperson, says he's "staggered" by the Prime Minister's statement because not all workers have been given priority. 

"The Government has moved, finally, because of the scare we've had at the Port of Tauranga, but this should have happened months ago," he says.


Chris Hipkins.
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Newshub.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Wednesday it wasn't possible to widen availability earlier due to vaccine supply issues.

But even among the highest-risk port workers, vaccine uptake has been woeful. 

ISO Limited, C3 Limited, SSA NZ Limited, Independent Stevedoring Limited and Wallace Investments all contract to ports and supply stevedores - those who load and unload foreign ships.

These workers are a priority and they're high risk, but 685 of them are still unvaccinated. This is 52.2 percent of the combined contractor - or outside - workforce.

"It is the contracted workforce at the ports that is proving to be challenging and the most difficult to budge," Hipkins said on Wednesday.

Misinformation has been blamed on the poor vaccine uptake, but Finny says it's more complex than that. 

He says some just haven't got around to getting the jab as rules state they don't need their first dose until September 30. 

He says some could be hesitant and other workers have not been allowed a shot as they were not eligible. 

A Health Ministry spokesperson was unable to say when exactly a change to the rules could be expected. 

This article was amended on August 12 2021 after an earlier version said changes had been made to widen availability of vaccines to all port workers. The Health Ministry says changes are “under consideration”.