Vaccination Policy – Time to Act

24 September 2021

Since our last article on this subject in March, the vaccination debate has rapidly gained momentum. Support for further Level 4 lockdowns is very low and the Government says that more than 90% of the eligible population need to be vaccinated to manage future outbreaks without lockdowns.  Within the next few weeks, every person 12 years and over should have had the opportunity to be vaccinated.  The next question is what will your policy be?

The Government got the ball rolling with the COVID-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order 2021, which required front line workers on the border (air and marine) and in MIQ to be vaccinated. Those who did not do so were required to move to alternative work (some were terminated and the ERA upheld those decisions).  The Government is now consulting with stakeholders about legislation to require all workers in the health and aged care sectors to be vaccinated.

Many overseas jurisdictions are taking a very hard line, such as prohibiting unvaccinated workers from undertaking certain work, imposing frequent testing for unvaccinated workers and only allowing vaccinated people to enter certain businesses and events. To enter cafes in the UK, a vaccination passport is required and here the hospitality industry is making similar noises. Melbourne construction sites are currently closed for two weeks because of unvaccinated employees, which has resulted in major protests, and one NZ construction company is only allowing vaccinated people to access their sites.

Clearly international travel is going to require a vaccination passport or similar.  Some sports stars have dropped out of teams due to not wishing to vaccinate, but that still appears to be voluntary for the All Blacks. 

We are also seeing evidence of B2B situations where a purchaser of goods or services is refusing access to staff of suppliers who are not vaccinated.

While the Govt can pass legislation to achieve its aims, the lot of private sector employers is more complicated.  You will have seen various commentators making statements focusing on what they think an employer can’t do, but in the end you have to take a stand.  Being in business is about successfully managing a variety of risks and COVID is no different. 

Employers have the unenviable task of balancing their obligations under competing sets of legislation – Health & Safety at Work Act 2015,  Human Rights Act 1993 and Employment Relations Act 2003.  However, overarching all that is commercial reality.

In addition to protecting the health and safety of its people, if an organisation is exposed to an infectious disease like COVID-19, that could result in:

  • Closure of part or all of the business for a period,
  • A requirement for key people to self-isolate for a considerable period,
  • Significant costs associated with deep cleaning and related issues,
  • The cost of remuneration for staff who are unable to work or who are not fully productive for a period, and
  • Reputational damage that could result in lower revenues.

The first point is to decide your preferred stance on vaccinations.  Will your policy provide for employees to be vaccinated or will you accept whatever happens?  Vaccination is not a silver bullet because vaccinated people may still contract or pass on COVID-19, but it appears to be the best line of defence so far, as it can minimise the severity of the infection.

If you haven’t already developed a clear policy, you should do so.  Then at least everyone knows what your objectives are and where they stand.  This is not a one size fits all approach.  However, if you are contemplating a clear policy line on staff being vaccinated then:

For existing employees, you should consider:

  • Conducting risk assessments to understand the exposure for staff and the business; and identifying ways to eliminate or minimize those risks.
  • Requesting staff to declare their vaccination status.  The experience so far is that most people who are vaccinated seem very keen to provide evidence of that fact.
  • Supporting unvaccinated staff to become fully vaccinated, including by providing balanced educational material and other incentives. 
  • Recognising that some people may have genuine health reasons preventing them from being vaccinated; and considering ways to minimize the risk to them in the workplace.
  • Putting restrictions in place for unvaccinated staff such as preventing face-to-face interactions with other staff, suppliers or customers; and perhaps testing for COVID-19 very frequently.
  • Addressing all the operational issues requiring mask wearing, social distancing and meticulous use of the Tracer App and so on.
  • Recognising that the impact of COVID-19 can cause people anxiety and depression and being proactive in supporting staff in a range of ways.

Prospective employees could be requested to declare their vaccination status.  Some would say this is not reasonable, but many employers already require MOJ or Police Checks, drug & alcohol tests, pre-employment medicals and so why not check vaccination status as one of the factors that inform a hiring decision? 

In the end it’s all about taking a sensible stand, winning the support of the vast majority of staff and then deciding how to manage those who prefer not to vaccinate.

One last point, if you are promoting a health and safety justification for employees being vaccinated, you also need to contemplate your stance on dealing with unvaccinated customers and clients.

If you need help developing a policy tailored for your business, give us a call – 021 920 323.