Australia Vaccination requirement likely at Australian workplaces at high risk of COVID-19 transmission, experts say
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As early as last autumn, public health experts and political leaders were sounding the alarm that conspiracist campaigns posed a dire threat to a future nationwide vaccination program—a threat that necessitated the appointment of a “disinformation czar” to counter anti-vaccine messaging. The incoming Biden administration initially intended to heed those calls by placing a disinformation expert on the White House COVID-19 Response Team, according to multiple members of the transition team, but never followed through.
New rules in the US will encourage federal employees to get vaccinated, and it's not out of the question that some workplaces could pursue similar policies here.
The Biden administration announced on Friday that federal employees would have to provide a declaration that they had been vaccinated or else would have to be regularly tested and abide by strict mask-wearing and social distancing policies.
The announcement came after both Google and Facebook said they would require staff to be vaccinated to return to the office, at least in their US locations.
In Australia, Qantas called on the federal government to introduce mandatory vaccination for all aviation staff, arguing it was needed to create the safest environment possible for travellers and staff.
As the pandemic wears on, some Americans could need booster shots
Some health officials now think a third shot could help older and immunocompromised people. Israel is already offering a third Pfizer shot for immunocompromised residents — though millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have yet to be vaccinated — and Pfizer has previously suggested that a booster shot could be needed in the US. Regulatory questions abound Though the US currently has tens of millions of surplus Covid-19 vaccine doses on hand, making a third Pfizer or Moderna shot available to millions of immunocompromised or elderly Americans likely won’t be a quick process.
"We believe COVID vaccination should be a requirement for all aviation workers," Qantas CEO Alan JoyceRN Breakfast on Friday.
Mandating vaccination for the general public has always been ruled out, but specific workplaces and settings may require vaccination in the future, according to some health experts.
What has been introduced in the US?
US President Joe Biden announced federal workers would need to sign forms declaring they had been vaccinated, otherwise they would have to be tested for COVID weekly, wear protective equipment and abide by other regulations.
The rules will affect more than 2 million federal employees in a range of federal workplaces, ranging from federal law enforcement to the postal service.
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The Biden administration hopes the rules will improve the slow rate at which some federal workers have been getting vaccinated.
"As a large employer, the largest in this country, who cares about individuals who keep the government running, we have an obligation to be good stewards of the workforce and ensure their health and their safety," deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
"It's a choice employees will be able to make."
But several high-profile unions, while encouraging workers to get vaccinated, have opposed the new policy, including the powerful Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
Its president, Larry Cosme, told US media he believed the regulations were a civil rights infringement.
"There will be a lot of pushback," he said. "It’s going to be an avalanche."
What does a vaccine requirement mean?
It was important to understand what form vaccine requirements were really taking, health ethicist Jane Williams said.
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The University of Sydney scholar said these sorts of mandates still allowed individuals to make personal decisions.
"You will still have a choice under any situation, really, to not be vaccinated," Dr Williams said.
"A lot of people, when they hear about mandates, they think, 'Someone's going to force me to do this.'
"Your bodily autonomy is still OK, no-one is going to hold you down and vaccinate you."
But she said the choice to remain unvaccinated could become less appealing over time, as certain settings or workplaces required people to be vaccinated or else abide by more onerous distancing guidelines.
Maria O'Sullivan, an expert in public and human rights law, said the government was within its rights to introduce requirements for vaccination if it was necessary.
"With any law, it has to be necessary and reasonable and proportionate," she said.
"[But] the government has a duty to protect people."
She said factors that could influence whether it would be necessary and fair included whether workers were in a setting that presented a high risk of transmission, and whether workers were required to be in close contact with people who were highly vulnerable.
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What has been said about vaccine requirements in Australia?
Australian officials have been clear from the beginning that there will be no broad vaccine mandate and that the focus is on encouraging people to get vaccinated as soon as they are able to.
But when it comes to specific workplaces, the policy has been less clear.
Initially, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said mandating vaccination in high-risk settings was unlikely.
As recently as the beginning of June, he said the government was unlikely to introduce a vaccine requirement for aged care workers.
"[The AHPPC] have not made that recommendation previously, and my advice is that it is unlikely to be made mandatory," he said.
But on June 28, the federal government did announce a mandate for aged care workers to be vaccinated.
"Imposing on a person the requirement to have a vaccine or not be able to work in a particular sector is something that no government would do lightly and, as a result, we have been considering this matter for some time now based on the best possible medical advice," he said.
Those health orders have still not been published. And in a statement to the Guardian on Friday, the federal health department said it understood states and territories were still developing orders that would give effect to the National Cabinet decision.
Coronavirus vaccine coverage worse in vulnerable areas in Sydney and Melbourne
Parts of Australian cities most vulnerable to serious Delta outbreaks have vaccine coverage well below the national average — and it could be an ongoing problem.Parts of Australian cities most vulnerable to serious Delta outbreaks have vaccine coverage well below the national average, including south-west Sydney and parts of Melbourne that suffered greatly through that city's second wave last year.
Vaccine requirements for disability care workers will also be considered in the future, according to the National Cabinet.
When it comes to the private sector making their own vaccine requirements, Facebook and Google have already said their recently announced policy will only be extended internationally after considering local laws and access to vaccines.
The Fair Work Ombudsman has said most employers would not currently be able to require staff to be vaccinated, unless it was to comply with government health orders.
"In the current circumstances, the overwhelming majority of employers should assume that they can't require their employees to be vaccinated against coronavirus," the ombudsman said in a recent statement.
However, the ombudsman did note that if the workplace was a high-risk setting or if staff had to interact with people highly vulnerable to the virus, this could make it more reasonable to lawfully direct staff to get vaccinated.
On the flip side, Dr O'Sullivan said anyone who launched a legal challenge against a workplace where a lawful vaccination requirement was introduced, such as aged care centre, would not have much luck.
"If they want to argue that they have a conscientious objection to vaccinations, that's not going to be successful," she said.
She noted some states and territories had already made vaccination for the flu or hepatitis mandatory for some health staff working in close contact with patients or infectious materials.
What must be considered vaccine requirements are introduced?
The first and most important factor to be weighed when considering vaccine requirements, Dr Williams said, was whether people had been afforded adequate access to vaccines.
She said accessibility went beyond simply having an adequate supply of vaccines or whether people were eligible to be vaccinated.
"I don't think that we can justifiably talk about mandates before we've got really, really easy ways of getting vaccines to people in ways that are acceptable to them," she said.
She said this meant ensuring any workers had access to extra leave for vaccination and other support.
"I think before we can mandate anything, we have to completely shift that thinking and say, 'OK, we will take this to people wherever they need it.'
She also said incentives should be considered before mandates.
"I personally have no problem saying, 'Here, we'll give you a hundred bucks if you get a vaccine.'"
But ultimately, she said, requirements for people to get vaccinated to access certain employment or benefits were not new, pointing to the no, jab no pay rule that exists when accessing the childcare benefit and childcare rebate schemes.
"It's not completely new for us," she said.
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