Workplace Covid-19 vaccination roll-out cops flak for being too slow and favouring larger workplaces

Workplaces wanting on-site vaccinations included retail, banking, fishing companies, meat processors and electricity and telecommunications providers, but the slowness of the roll-out is causing concern.
WARWICK SMITH/Stuff
Workplaces wanting on-site vaccinations included retail, banking, fishing companies, meat processors and electricity and telecommunications providers, but the slowness of the roll-out is causing concern.

The workplace vaccination roll-out is under fire for being too little, too late, and there are calls to improve the service before booster shots are needed.

In July about 250 businesses employing 350,000 workers put their hands up for on-site jabs, and so far more than 7500 people have been vaccinated through a pilot covering Fonterra, Mainfreight, The Warehouse Group and Fisher & Paykel Healthcare.

Critics from both the health and business sectors say the programme should have kicked off months ago, offering a fast easy way to immunise thousands of Kiwis against the Covid-19 virus.

A national workplace vaccination scheme administered by the Ministry of Health (MOH) will focus on 58 businesses - large employers with 1000-plus employees, and work sites of more than 70 with Māori, Pacifica, shift working or rural workforces.

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District health boards (DHBs) will handle the roll-out for the remaining 192 employers, and MOH director of national contracts for the Covid-19 vaccination programme Rachel MacKay​ says they aim to have all workplace jabs completed by Christmas.

She defends the scheme which she says was developed after wide consultation with businesses, occupational health providers, and DHBs.

It was always scheduled for September to coincide with bookings opening up for 30 to 50 year-olds, and it was not feasible to change that when the arrival of Delta saw age band dates brought forward and essential worker criteria extended.

Sources close to the workplace roll-out say the MOH process is painfully slow with approvals sometimes coming through at the last minute, making it hard to plan ahead.

Staff from Cool Air Refrigeration get their vaccines on August 23 at Washdyke.
JOHN BISSET/Stuff
Staff from Cool Air Refrigeration get their vaccines on August 23 at Washdyke.

New Zealand Occupational Health Nurses Association president Judy Currie​ says her 300 members administered about 70,000 workplace flu jabs annually, but efforts to get involved in the Covid-19 campaign had proved frustrating.

“It’s at the end of things rather than the beginning.

“Workplaces have been screaming out to have vaccinations done by trusted professionals in their workplace.”

Currie concedes the specific storage and administration requirements for the Pfizer vaccine made it more complicated to handle than regular flu vaccinations, “but it’s not insurmountable,” and there were major advantages to providing shots at work.

“People don’t have to take time off, you’re right there to keep an eye on them, and it's just a different atmosphere.”

Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope says workplace jabs have not happened fast enough, and had now probably been overtaken by the Government’s push to get everyone vaccinated as soon as possible.

“There will need to be a better way for the booster shots.”

The Ministry of Health has identified 58 companies that meet its criteria for a national workplace vaccination scheme. In assessing applicants for the scheme, it looks at staff numbers, how many vaccinations can be done each day, and whether the workforce includes Maori, Pacifica, shift workers and rural employees.
Tom Lee/Stuff
The Ministry of Health has identified 58 companies that meet its criteria for a national workplace vaccination scheme. In assessing applicants for the scheme, it looks at staff numbers, how many vaccinations can be done each day, and whether the workforce includes Maori, Pacifica, shift workers and rural employees.

Hotel Council Aotearoa’s 350 members employ about 14,000 staff, and chef executive James Doolan began pushing for accelerated vaccinations of hotel staff three months ago after a Covid-positive Australian visitor to Wellington sparked a change in alert levels.

He says the workplace scheme has come too late, and because it focuses on larger employers, many hotels operating with skeleton crews don’t fit the MOH criteria.

A business owner, who declined to be named because he did not want to jeopardise any future relationship with the MOH, is feeling similarly frustrated about the inability to get on-site jabs for his manufacturing plant.

“I wish it had been done months ago because the question wasn’t if Delta was coming to New Zealand, it was when.”

The man pulled together a group of about a dozen smaller employers in his area to meet MOH criteria for lodging an expression of interest in the workplace scheme, and his only communication from the ministry was an email in late August after the return to alert level 4.

The ministry email said it intended offering workplace vaccinations when it was safe to do so, and it was setting up meetings with about 14 vaccination providers who had applied to deliver workplace jabs under a national contract.

With almost half his staff being Pacifica or Māori deemed at greater risk from the virus, the business owner decided to transport small groups of workers to a GP practice for their shots, and estimates about 60 per cent are now fully vaccinated.

“You just have to get on and find other ways to look after your workforce because they are an incredibly valuable asset, our business is reliant on them, I want to look after these guys and I don't want to see them in hospital or sick.”

MacKay​ says a wide range of vaccination options are on offer at locations such as marae, general practices and pharmacies, so there is no need for people to wait,

Some DHBs, such as Whanganui, are already visiting industrial workplaces, and she believes the service is worth pursuing.

Feedback from businesses in the workplace pilot indicated they were pleased with the uptake and found that vaccine hesitant staff were more likely to agree to having a jab when they had support from colleagues in a familiar place.

“Initially we had not looked at this as part of a tail-end-Charlie or a mop up campaign, but I do think there is potential for workplace vaccinations to play that role.”

Unite Union secretary Mike Treen​ believes workplace vaccination is critical for getting the immunisation rate above 90 per cent because he says it removes another barrier for poor workers on minimum wage who are reluctant to take time off to get a jab.

Unite members work in call centres, cinemas, casinos, hotels, fast food chains and hotels, and Treen says they are often young people who shift around a lot and may not have a GP.

“They’re not necessarily Covid sceptical, they’re just not used to accessing services as of right.”

Jared Abbott of First Union says they support workplace vaccinations, but there is still a lot of hesitancy and anti-vax disinformation about, and some on-site clinics had found a refusal rate of 30 per cent which was much higher than that reported in polling figures.

“They have come to us and said ‘wow, we did not expect quite so many would turn it down,’ there are a lot of people that are very reluctant.”