COVID-19: Concerns mounting as large portion of port workers remain unvaccinated, misinformation party to blame

A staggering number of workers at New Zealand's ports remain unvaccinated and unprotected against COVID-19, with mounting concern that misinformation is contributing to the lack of uptake.

On Wednesday, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins revealed that 44 percent of port staff have yet to receive a single jab of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which health officials are largely putting down to rampant misinformation regarding its safety and efficacy.

While under questioning at the Select Committee, Hipkins said a "disproportionate uptake of misinformation by port workers" is "increasing hesitancy", adding that the statistics are "very concerning".

It's believed misinformation could be a major roadblock in the vaccination campaign, particularly as New Zealand's immunisation rate progresses. 

As more and more people receive their jabs, the remainder - those who are reluctant to come forward - will become harder to chip away at, Hipkins continued. 

"At the moment our numbers are very good every day because there is good demand there," he said. "As we get into the latter part of the year - where all those who are eager to be vaccinated have come forward and been vaccinated - the misinformation is really going to have an impact on us reaching those higher levels that we really need to get to."

During an update on the rollout that afternoon, Hipkins doubled-down on his statements, saying: "I'm very worried about the potential impact as we reach higher vaccination rates… Some of the misinformation means some people are scared to be vaccinated, and that is regrettable, because that information is wrong."

Now, the Maritime Union is calling on the Government to introduce more proactive measures to combat the spread of misinformation among the port workforce. 

Speaking to Newshub, Maritime Union secretary Craig Harrison says the nature of the industry, with shifts beginning and ending at all hours of the day, is making vaccination inaccessible to those with schedules outside the 9am-5pm work day. 

"We have concerns," Harrison told Newshub. "I think a lot more effort needs to be put into the port and making [vaccination] accessible. The nature of the industry is shift work, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People are working odd hours… they don't really line up with the working day like everyone else.

"The only thing I can see that would make it more accessible is if they dedicated teams to some of these regional and bigger ports to get it done."

He believes officials can do more to open up the discourse around vaccination - and for workers who operate on an off-peak schedule, he says more direct communication could be beneficial. 

"To me, it's getting to the critical stage where maybe they need to put some dedicated portacoms on some of these bigger ports, or dedicate a team to go port-to-port, sit down with the workers, and help them through the issue of vaccination and [address] their concerns."

He also echoed Hipkins' call for hesitant individuals to speak to informed people they trust, such as their GP or a local healthcare professional.

During the update on the vaccination rollout, Hipkins urged reluctant people to speak to a GP or healthcare professional if they don't trust the information being disseminated by politicians. 

"Just be informed. Speak to people who can provide good, factual, impartial information. If you don't trust politicians - a lot of New Zealanders don't - speak to your local GP. Speak to someone who is working in the health system, and ask them for factual, reliable information."

Harrison agrees, suggesting it might be beneficial for teams of health staff to pay a visit to port workers. 

"I think a bit more effort needs to be [directed at] port, with health professionals speaking to the workers directly, rather than getting handouts, emails or text messages. I think a one-on-one conversation helps."

However, Harrison noted that the testing of crew on-board foreign vessels arriving in New Zealand is also imperative while so many of the port workforce remain unprotected.  

"A lot of port workers never go near the ships… the critical people are the people who go up the gangway and work onboard the ship. You have log ships and bulk ships where not a lot of people go on-board," he said.

"We've also been asking [for] these ships to be tested as they come into New Zealand, so we can understand the risk vessel-by-vessel… Maybe the way that they get around this is they identify the risk on-board the vessels and start testing some of these ships."

Vaccination is and will remain voluntary in New Zealand, Hipkins reiterated on Wednesday, however, he encourages "people to take it up" - particularly those in Group 2, where an estimated 27 percent of high-risk frontline workers and people living in high-risk places are yet to be fully immunised. 

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