The Opposition is calling on the Government to phase out vaccine certificates when 90 percent of the eligible population has been inoculated against COVID-19 - but Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, Michael Wood, says it would be "absolute nonsense" to do so.
On Tuesday, the Government announced that vaccination will be mandatory for staff at any workplace where patrons are required to present a vaccine certificate upon entry, such as hospitality businesses, hairdressers and gyms - covering about 40 percent of New Zealand's workforce. Close-contact venues will join the healthcare and education sectors, as well as the border workforce, under the Government's sweeping vaccination mandates. Under the law change, unvaccinated workers in roles requiring vaccination will be given a new four-week notice period to get vaccinated before their employment can be terminated.
Vaccine certificates - a document that certifies its holder has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 - are expected to become available in November. The Government has already stated that the certificates will not be required to enter essential services, such as healthcare providers and supermarkets, but will be mandatory for those wanting to attend large, high-risk events. When available, double-jabbed New Zealanders will be able to download their vaccine certificates on their mobile to present when entering events or businesses. The certificate will also be printable for those who wish to carry a hard copy.
But the leader of the National Party, Judith Collins, believes the passports should become obsolete once 90 percent of New Zealand's eligible population is vaccinated. As of Tuesday, 87 percent of Kiwis aged 12 and over have received their first dose of the vaccine - 71 percent are fully vaccinated. Auckland, the epicentre of the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19, is 77 percent double-jabbed - and 90 percent of eligible residents have received their first dose.
Although she has expressed support for vaccine certificates, Collins says the documents should not be used as a "long-term tool" to "separate" and divide New Zealanders. She says she doesn't see a reason for their continued use once 90 percent of Kiwis are vaccinated.
"The National Party doesn't agree with the Government in their plan to impose restrictions with the mandatory use of vaccine certificates after we have hit their vaccine target of 90 percent across all DHBs," Collins said on Tuesday.
"Once the target is achieved, National supports the existing rights of all private businesses to choose who they do business with. Some businesses will choose to require proof of vaccination. Others will not.
"Proof of vaccination should be available to all vaccinated New Zealanders so they can engage with private businesses who require it and so they can travel overseas. It should not be a long term tool for the Government to separate New Zealanders."
With the certificates set to be available in November, the Government would - if it heeds National's advice - potentially be ditching the initiative after only a couple of months of use.
Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, Michael Wood, says a tight deadline would "defeat the purpose" of the certificates.
"The Opposition has had a number of different positions on this over the last few weeks which they will have to resolve," he told The AM Show on Wednesday morning.
Wood says the purpose of vaccine certificates is ensuring businesses can safely operate once the golden 90 percent target is achieved - not just reaching that milestone.
"Once we're up over 90 percent, COVID doesn't just disappear - we want to make sure we've got the maximum protections in place that are possible so when people are going out and about… we can keep them as safe as we can," he said.
"It would be absolute nonsense and defeat the purpose of COVID-19 vaccine certificates to remove those requirements once things started getting into gear and places started opening up again."
He noted that while the certificates are meant to encourage uptake by restricting the freedoms of the unvaccinated, it's also about "giving people confidence" that those around them are inoculated - and therefore, everyone is safer.
"Once we get to 90 percent, COVID doesn't disappear, this is about how we manage it as aggressively as possible to stop outbreaks so that we don't need to use lockdowns… this is an important part of the toolkit."
He says the vaccination mandate for staff working in these businesses will provide "consistency" by ensuring both workers and customers are fully immunised against the virus.
The Government does not have an occupation-based breakdown of the current vaccination rates among these industries, he said, but it's estimated that about 25 percent of employees will be working in a business that requires certificates for entry.
"The vast majority of [workers] are already vaccinated or are getting vaccinated, this is about giving some final encouragement to quite a small minority who aren't," Wood said.
"We want to move to a highly vaccinated environment where people can get back to enjoying those freedoms and those things that make life really worth living, and a key part of that is people having confidence that when they go out, they and their family will be safe, and that as many people they interact with as possible will also be vaccinated. This is quite a powerful tool to us getting there."