There are still 1766 border workers who are completely unvaccinated – and most of them won’t have to get a single vaccine jab to continue to work at the front line for more than two and a half months.
The Ministry of Health has released the latest figures – as of July 9 – to the Herald as Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced the expansion of a public health order, which will require more border workers to be vaccinated.
The order – previewed by the Herald last week – will fill a gap in our border defences that Professor Michael Baker has previously described as “hugely concerning”.
It will also address an inconsistency that currently means thousands of border workers are deemed high-risk enough to be required to have regular tests for Covid-19, but they’re able to work on the frontline without being vaccinated.
It will apply from Thursday, but the extra non-government border workers it captures – which make up most of the 1766 unvaccinated border workers – won’t need to get their first jab until September 30.
Government workers newly captured by the order will need their first jab by August 26. Any new border worker will need to have had one jab before they can start work.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in this afternoon’s press conference that the impact of the Delta virus in other countries had shown how important it was to keep the borders tight.
Questioned why it had taken so long to make vaccination compulsory for all border workers or face losing their jobs, Ardern said such a move was an “extraordinary step”, especially for private sector workers.
Time had been allowed for those workers to get vaccinated voluntarily, but the Government was not satisfied with the overall uptake.
Ardern said in some of the smaller ports it could affect key personnel, who could not be easily replaced if they opted not to get vaccinated.
This follows comments in April by Ardern that every border worker would be redeployed away from the frontline if they were not vaccinated.
But the subsequent public health order only applied to MIQ workers and non-MIQ government workers at the border, such as Customs officers.
It did not apply to airside retail and hospitality workers at airports, or privately-employed baggage-handlers or airport cleaners – such as the one who caught Covid-19 in April after cleaning a plane that carried high-risk passengers.
It did not apply to privately-contracted port workers, such as pilots or the engineer who caught the virus last year from infected crew from the Philippines.
And it did not apply to non-government workers who come into contact with items that might be infected – such as the LSG SkyChefs worker who handled laundry from Auckland International Airport and who may have sparked the February cluster.
The Health Ministry said there were 12,209 active border workers in the Border Workforce Testing Register (BWTR) on July 9.
Of these, 83 per cent (10,123 workers) had already received their second dose of the vaccine, while 3 per cent (320 workers) had received their first dose only.
The remaining 14 per cent – or 1766 workers – were not vaccinated at all. Some may be exempt from vaccination, and some may not be matched to their vaccination record.
“I am extending the mandatory order to cover a further 1800 currently unvaccinated active border workers,” Hipkins said today.
“This is necessary to lift the uptake of the vaccine among the wider border workforce and strengthen our ongoing response to Covid-19.”
Only 95.4 per cent of MIQ workers are fully vaccinated, according to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
“Of the active air border workers, 82 per cent are fully vaccinated and 2 per cent have received a single dose and await their second,” Hipkins said.
“However only 54 per cent of active port workers have been fully vaccinated, and we need to see this number increased to avoid the risk of Covid-19 entering the country via our ports.
“I’d also encourage border employers to look at opportunities to make it easy for their workers to get vaccine appointments and to urge employees to get their vaccination.”
From Thursday, the order will also apply to the airside area of affected airports and some other higher-risk work at airports, affected ports, and accommodation services where specified aircrew members are self-isolating.
It will also include work that involves handling affected items removed from ships, aircraft, or MIQ, and workers who have contact with people who are subject to the public health order.
The Government has previously been reluctant to give short lead-in times because deploying thousands of workers at once would cause significant workplace disruption.
There has also been concern over how easy it would be to replace specialised workers who didn’t want to get a jab.
Expanding the public health order is one of three ways Cabinet has been considering to strengthen public health measures, alongside making QR code scanning mandatory for high risk places – like bars and restaurants – and more widespread mask use at alert levels 2 and up.
Ardern is yet to announce any decisions on the other two measures.
The Herald has been reporting on the number of vaccinated border workers for months, and the Government recently signalled a new public health order to require more workers at the border to be vaccinated.
Hipkins has said he would have liked more border workers to have been covered earlier.
The Government also had little gauge on how many non-MIQ border workers were being regularly tested until its border worker testing register became mandatory at the end of April.
Hipkins has also said he wished it had been made mandatory sooner.
Reopening the Transtasman bubble
On the pause with quarantine-free flights with NSW, Ardern said she did not want to put a time frame on how long it would be before the bubble re-opened.
She said it was a “significant outbreak” and that was why the Government had started the emergency repatriation flights, including MIQ. She did not know how high the immediate demand was, but the aim was to get those who needed to get home back as soon as possible.
She said that indicated the Government expected the pause in travel to last for some time yet.
Ardern said the decision to put NSW travellers into MIQ did not impact on the spaces for other travellers, because there had always been a contingency allocation for Australia. Hipkins said that contingency was usually 500 rooms – but vacancies had meant they could open up 1000 rooms over the next two weeks.
The Government had also relaxed the cohorting rules to cater to the emergency situation, but was confident the risk was low.
On the resumption of green zone flights from Queensland, Ardern said the Ministry of Health were confident the risk was low.
Ardern also said work on the programme for re-connecting New Zealand to the world began early this year. She had asked the group led by David Skegg to provide advice on vaccinated travellers and the need to quarantine, and that initial advice would be made public soon.
Questioned why travellers from Australia were arriving without pre-departure tests, Hipkins said anyone caught had to spend two weeks in MIQ and pay for it.
He was looking at whether the system was adequate, and whether checking and enforcement needed to be boosted.
Checking every single passenger would add to the time and cost of administration at the border, he said.
Ardern said such checks would be part of life for a long time to come, and would end up inbuilt at the border.
She had a warning for people hoping to slip through the net without getting a test: “If you try and come to New Zealand without a pre-departure test, you run the risk of being put into managed isolation for 14 days and paying for it. That is not the holiday anybody might expect.”
On the outbreak in Fiji, Ardern said she had offered support to PM Frank Bainimarama in either vaccinations or personal protective equipments. She would not rule out further funding, saying Fiji was a neighbour and a friend.
Responding to Australia’s report it had secured a surge in Pfizer vaccines, Ardern said New Zealand had secured enough for its population this year.
“Then it’s a matter of moving people through the system in that time frame,” she said.
Queried about funding going into gang-run methamphetamine rehab courses, Ardern said the course in the past had shown signs of success. She said it might involve people with criminal histories, but addressing their meth use was important.
She confirmed she was one of the ministers who signed off on the funding, but noted it also had support from the Ministry of Social Development and Ministry of Health after a pilot in 2020.
Informal APEC meeting
Ardern announced today there will be an informal meeting of the Apec leaders this weekend to discuss Covid-19 – ahead of the formal meeting in November.
The meeting will be chaired by Ardern and held virtually.
Ardern said it was the first time such an unscheduled meeting of leaders had been held.
She said leaders would share information to help shape a coordinated economic response to Covid-19, and to bolster the health response.
US President Joe Biden and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had both confirmed they would take part in the meeting, which will be 1am Saturday NZ time.
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