Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: Two government agencies review vaccination policies after mandate announcement

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Confusion reigns for workers laid off from their jobs over vaccination mandates, while two government agencies that have laid off dozens of employees are reviewing their Covid guidelines and vaccination policies.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced this week that vaccination warrants will no longer be required in education, police and defense workforces and businesses using vaccination passes from April 4. They would still be needed in health care and elder care, corrections and border workers.

Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes said the public sector was in a good position due to high vaccination rates and the mandates of some agencies.

But he added that the potential rehiring of workers laid off due to vaccination mandates was “a matter for every agency chief executive to consider.”

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Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood said companies will receive more details on whether to apply the vaccination mandates in the coming days.

This morning the minister dismissed claims that the situation was dire A M the situation had been foreseen for some time.

If companies wanted to keep employee mandates up to date, guidance would be uploaded to the WorkSafe website in the coming days.

He said there was currently advice available on the website regarding health advice and risk assessment.

Workplaces were to do their own health and safety assessment to determine if warrants were needed.

Outgoing National MP Simon Bridges said the lack of updated guidance since the announcement was reported on Monday was causing confusion among business owners.

“It’s dog breakfast,” he said.

The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) said an assessment of its Covid protocols and guidelines, including its vaccination policy, was underway in light of the government announcement.

Oranga Tamariki also said its vaccination policy was currently being reviewed and would consider the imminent removal of certain mandates.

Labor lawyer Jordan Boyle, of Dyhrberg Drayton, said people who lost their jobs for refusing a vaccine had no legal recourse to regain their jobs with many warrants soon to be terminated.

“Once the employment relationship is terminated, any obligation the employer has to the employee does not exist,” Boyle said.

However, he explained, it was different for those still working notice periods.

“There are still obligations of good faith between the parties and obviously any material justification for the dismissal no longer exists in theory, since the mandates are no longer applicable.”

Boyle said there could be a problem for workplaces where a new person has been brought in to replace a departing worker due to vaccination mandates.

“I think an employee would have a pretty good argument that because the substantial justification is no longer there, the dismissal should not continue to take effect.”

Ardern said the government’s justification for maintaining mandates in certain sectors was that they were either staff working with the most vulnerable people or workers in high-risk environments where the spread would be rapid or the exposure to new variants was high.

“Warrants were definitely needed to get 95% of the eligible population vaccinated, to achieve virtual elimination of Delta over the summer,” she said.

Ardern said that although warrants will be dropped next month, they were still necessary in certain circumstances – and that’s up to employers to decide.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Jobs (MBIE) is set to update guidance for businesses in the face of mandates and legal challenges – with some already making their own adjustments.

Workers in some sectors are covered by government vaccination mandates, and other companies could conduct a risk assessment to implement their own vaccine requirements.

Boyle said employers with internal vaccination mandates should continually review their policies based on the latest Covid-19 data.

MSD introduced its Covid-19 vaccination policy in mid-December and implemented a vaccination mandate for staff on January 10.

The Herald reported earlier in the month that the agency had begun laying off about 220 unvaccinated workers.

MSD suspended the process after the High Court ruled that vaccination warrants for police and defense forces were unlawful.

The layoffs resumed after MSD considered guidance from the Public Service Commission, with the government agency saying its process met relevant legal requirements.

MSD’s assistant general manager for organizational assurance and communications, Melissa Gill, said that when there is a change or update in the government’s Covid-19 settings, it reviews all of its protocols and guidelines. Covid, including vaccination policy.

“It is important to note that government decisions relate to vaccination orders under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act. Our policy has a different legislative basis and is based on an assessment of health and safety risks under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.”

Gill previously told the Herald that final decisions would be made regarding the employment of the 220 unvaccinated employees – but not all of them would result in layoffs.

Oranga Tamariki also has an internal policy

– separate from the government’s mandate – that all staff be vaccinated by March 1.

Deputy Covid Coordination and Support Manager Bill Searle said the agency’s risk assessment and vaccination policy was being reviewed.

“The government’s decision to remove certain terms will be considered as part of this review. Implications for kaimahi in post-term employment processes will be considered on a case-by-case basis.”

The Herald reported this month that the Children’s Department had sacked 19 frontline staff who were covered by the government’s mandate which required health and education workers to receive two doses of the vaccine before January 1.

Searle said at the time five other staff members resigned and one retired while 70 workers were moved into alternative roles that did not involve interaction with other people.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.  Photo/Mark Mitchell
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo/Mark Mitchell

Minister for Covid-19 Response and Minister for Education Chris Hipkins said AM schools may have special circumstances that could warrant a vaccine requirement – such as staff who look after children immunocompromised.

“Ultimately schools will have to make those decisions and they need to get good legal advice when making those decisions.”

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Ashley C. Reynolds