Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BusinessSeptember 3, 2021

Bernard Hickey: The case for mandatory vaccines in the workplace

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Businesses are scrambling to convince vaccine-hesitant staff to get the jab, but some are warning that vaccination will need to be mandated in certain workplaces if we want to get the rate over 90%.

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A lot of people don’t like the government telling them what to do when it comes to injecting something made in a laboratory into their arm. The line between personal freedom and societal responsibility is a fraught one at the best of times, and Covid has skewed and blurred and broken it in all sorts of unexpected and tricky ways.

That’s why the government has been wary until now about mandating vaccination, and has only in recent months made mask-wearing mandatory in public indoor spaces. It took nine months of Covid before the government finally crossed the rubicon to make masks mandatory on public transport and on planes. Mask wearing only became mandatory for all public-facing essential services staff in level four last month.

Now Aotearoa faces an existential challenge to get vaccination rates up as close to 100% as possible, as fast as possible, if it is to have any hope of returning to something like normality and of keeping the gate of Fortress NZ at least slightly ajar. Business leaders, managers and directors are now having to face up to a set of ethical, legal, communications and HR challenges that could make or break them, and decide whether the nation gets the ultra-high vaccination rate it needs.

Their problem is they are doing it without the voice of the state to back them up with law. Vaccinations were only made mandatory for all MIQ workers, airport staff and port staff in July, and even then privately-employed port and airport workers did not need to have their first dose until September 30. Bizarrely, vaccination is not yet mandatory in the healthcare sector nor in retail, hospitality, public transport, schools and universities.

In this week’s episode of my podcast When the Facts Change, I talked to Business NZ CEO Kirk Hope, a key player in the decision in March 2020 to lock down the economy hard and fast. I also talked to Oceania Healthcare’s GM of nursing and clinical strategy, Dr Frances Hughes. Oceania has a workforce of nearly 3,000, making it one of New Zealand’s biggest retirement home and aged care companies, and its 45 rest homes boast close to 4,000 residents.

Both Hope and Hughes want to see the government make vaccinations mandatory in the most crucial workplaces in the country, with Hughes calling specifically for mandatory vaccines for workers in the healthcare sector.

An obvious hurdle is current government policy, acknowledged Hope.

“The government has always maintained a consistent line that they want it to be voluntary, that their preferred processes for it to be voluntary. And by and large, that’s how they’re planning on getting 80 odd percent of the population vaccinated for workplaces,” he said.

But employers are worried they won’t be able to keep their workplaces and customers safe with unvaccinated workers. They point to the fact that the government has already mandated vaccines for some workplaces.

For now, most businesses can’t sack employees on existing employment contracts if they’re not vaccinated. They can write the vaccination clause into new contracts, but that’s not going to solve the problem for existing staff.

Directors are particularly worried, since they are personal liable if they run a business in a way that means their staff are not safe. Allowing an unvaccinated person to come into work could lead to Covid being spread to others, or, paradoxically, that unvaccinated person catching it from vaccinated coworkers and being hospitalised as a result. Or worse. A worker could refuse vaccination, get Covid at work, and the director could be prosecuted for keeping that worker on staff, even though the law says they cannot sack the worker for remaining unvaccinated.

The question of what to do about workers who refuse the vaccine will become increasingly pressing over the next few months (Photo: Kuncoro Widyo Rumpoko/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

At the moment, the best an employer can do is to send an unvaccinated employee to work in a different role or location that prevents them from being exposed, or exposing customers or other staff to the risk. The more infectious delta strain and the inability of the vaccine to entirely stop transmission has put business managers and directors in the invidious position of having to keep staff on payroll who are physically endangering their colleagues and themselves.

Not every business has a quiet and empty place to send a staff member, however.

“If you’re thinking about a small business that might be exposed to the border, they wouldn’t have very much scope at all. So they’ll be trying to encourage the staff to get vaccinated, and have their teams encouraging each other to get vaccinated for workplace reasons, for family reasons, particularly where there’s a high level of exposure,” Hope said.

But that won’t be enough to get up over 90%, given the latest surveys show vaccine hesitancy rates still around 20%.

“There will be a large cohort of existing employment contracts out there, where if people push back and say, actually, we don’t want to be vaccinated, we don’t want this to be part of our employment relationship, and it’s none of your business, there’s not very much that an employer can do about it,” Hope said.

Oceania Healthcare’s Frances Hughes and BusinessNZ’s Kirk Hope (Photos: supplied)

Oceania’s Frances Hughes has been in this position right from the start of the pandemic. As soon as Covid-19 reached our shores she had to immediately scramble to ensure all staff wore all the correct PPE and masks, and followed the procedures to keep themselves and residents safe. It was a frightening time, especially as we watched Covid race through rest homes overseas, killing thousands.

Hughes has taken a pragmatic approach to working with staff who, in some cases, have been fearful and hesitant about getting vaccinated.

“We did a lot of work with our managers, having talks dealing with hesitancy, giving information, having lots of videos. We had our director of education and research — a clinical pharmacologist — doing one-to-one talks to staff on understanding the virus, understanding the Pfizer vaccine,” she said.

“We did a lot of early work, and it has paid off. But at the end of the day, we firstly said very clearly all new employees will be vaccinated. Secondly, if you choose not to be vaccinated, and you’re an existing employee, we’ve got to put you into a mask and do surveillance testing on you. And that will be for as long as you work for us.”

The urgent need for rapid testing in business

Easily accessible saliva testing kits and multiple testing facilities will be crucial for businesses forced to keep unvaccinated staff on their payrolls. Both BusinessNZ and Oceania want to see the Ministry of Health urgently open up the landscape for rapid testing kits like those widely available in the UK and elsewhere.

“It’s been really disappointing in terms of the Ministry of Health’s perspective on a range of these tests. We haven’t got a lot of them in New Zealand. They’ve really provided the rules for [only] one saliva testing provider,” Hope said.

“It’s really frustrating when you look at what’s available for businesses and other things. I know that there are a lot of businesses, particularly those that are at the border, who are using nasal pharyngeal testing, but they also use saliva testing, because you can do it more regularly,” he said.

“It’s way less invasive for people who have to have regular tests. And you can do it more regularly because it’s less invasive and less painful. It’s frustrating and an area where where we don’t want to fall behind.”

Business leaders hope large-scale vaccination events like the one at Auckland’s Vodafone Events Cenre in July could help bump our vaccination rate over 90%. (Photo: Justin Latif)

There is a hope that on-site vaccination of staff and their families by very large employers will help get vaccination rates up over 90%, but businesses say at some point the government will have to look at making it mandatory, especially in the riskiest and most crucial workplaces.

“There’ll be populations in communities who don’t necessarily react that well to being told that they must do something,” Hope said.

“The first port of call is really utilising education, getting as many facts out there about the costs versus the benefits of being vaccinated to as many people as possible about why they should be vaccinated.”

But BusinessNZ is already seeing some workplaces – ones that operate essential services or economically crucial businesses that New Zealanders depend on for food and export receipts – that may need help with regulation or legislation to make vaccination mandatory.

“I do think that there quite a strong argument that if there are businesses which are quite important for the economy, but not necessarily essential — say they’re a big part of the industry from a production perspective — there might be an argument for the government to mandate some of those businesses to have a fully vaccinated workforce because of the flow-on consequence for other parts of the economy if they’re not operating,” Hope said.

“There’s not going to be a huge number of those businesses, but I think there’ll be enough of them, because New Zealand is an economy that’s made up of some very large players, and then a long tail of much smaller players,” he said.

“If you take out some of those big players in certain sectors you’ll have a really, really big impact on a lot of those small players as well.

“So I think there’s an argument for making it mandatory if it makes it easy for the employer to say, hey, not our call, you’ve got to get vaccinated – we’re important enough, as a part of the economy.”

Hope said BusinessNZ had yet to approach the government to suggest which sectors or businesses would require this mandatory vaccination status, but thinks the need to move in this direction has only got more acute.

“It is probably a much stronger argument with delta, to say, actually, we we need all our staff to be vaccinated irrespective of what the job or the role is because there’s more likelihood of exposure and transmission.”

Hughes has also worked to make mandatory vaccination a last resort. “People just need the door open for them. There’s so much garbage of information out there. You just can’t leave people there that aren’t going to get vaccinated,” she said.

“There are the reasons why people don’t get vaccinated, and a lot of it’s got to do with fear and anxiety. So you’ve got to get down to that level, and you’ve got to be open. And you’ve got to be upfront with them and send them to the right information.”

Hughes said some pregnant staff were hesitant at first, but came on board once the official all-clear was given.

“But sometimes you’ve got your anti-vaxxers. That’s a different issue and health professionals, the regulatory bodies for nurses, have come out very strong: there’s no tolerance really for anti-vaxxers amongst nurses,” she said.

“So yes we have had to have some quite strong discussions with people and some people have left our employment.” Hughes later told me that no more than “a handful” of employees had left Oceania over their vaccination status.

She said healthcare workers needed to be told point-blank that won’t be able to work in the industry without being vaccinated.

“That’s a reality. I do wish the government would come out stronger on this, to be honest, because it’ll help us. Overseas, there’s little to no tolerance of this,” she said.

“I think they need to mandate that all health care workers need to be vaccinated. I just think it clears the pitch.”

Meanwhile, many large businesses are also looking to help with onsite vaccinations. Around 60 large organisations have agreed to work with the Ministry of Health after trial runs by Fonterra, Mainfreight, Fisher and Paykel and The Warehouse.

Hughes points to the success of Oceania’s own vaccination programme for residents, staff and their families. She herself is a registered vaccinator and has administered many in recent days.

“We are offering dedicated vaccination pop-ups for staff and their families. I was vaccinating earlier this week. I had grandma, grandpa, 14 year olds, our staff members, the mother, we had whole generations. Now half of that family did not speak English. But it was amazing. It was absolutely amazing. They felt safe.”

Hope said onsite vaccinations would help bring in many employees worried about having to take time off work or aren’t comfortable in other settings. He is hopeful New Zealand could get over 80% vaccinated and then look to open up as people see the freedoms others elsewhere have.

“I think people will say, actually, we need to move on from the fortress New Zealand.”

Follow When the Facts Change, Bernard Hickey’s essential weekly guide to the intersection of economics, politics and business on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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