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Australia Ebony* says she was 'on the fence' about vaccination, but Victoria's mandate swayed her

18:41  05 october  2021
18:41  05 october  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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Ebony* says she still had not decided whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine when the Victorian government made getting the jab mandatory for swaths of authorised workers, including her.

Now the construction worker has dug in firmly against getting it, and she has been suspended from her job, without pay, for refusing to comply.

Ebony, 26, said she was "not an anti-vaxxer" but she did not agree with the introduction of a mandate.

She said she had read about the Novavax vaccine online — which is currently not available in Australia — and she would prefer to get that vaccine because she is worried about suffering negative effects from the Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccines.

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Medical experts have explained why those COVID-19 vaccines are considered very safe and effective.

"I was sitting on the fence, I was sort of contemplating it," she said.

"Then, once this [mandate] came into play, it made me very angry.

"That is when I started doing research."

Ebony said that, along with colleagues in a similar position, she had been talking to her union, the CFMEU, for help.

She said she was worried about the financial implications of losing her job, but did not want to get vaccinated yet.

"I won't do this job forever, but I'm going to be inside this body forever," she said.

Her union has said it does not back mandatory vaccinations, but has been encouraging members to get vaccinated.

The deadline for construction workers to get at least one vaccine has already passed, but most authorised workers covered by the broad mandate announced last Friday have until October 15.

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As individuals and employers across the state navigate the change, a motion will be introduced to the Victorian Parliament today asking the state government to release the medical advice and human rights assessments that informed the decision to introduce the vaccine mandate for authorised workers.

Law centre inundated with mandate calls

A not-for-profit community legal centre that provides free employment advice said it had experienced a spike in calls related to vaccination after the Victorian government's COVID-19 vaccine mandate announcement.

JobWatch, which is based in Victoria, operates a free telephone service offering advice to workers.

The service helps about 16,500 a year, and usually receives a few hundred calls each week.

Executive director Zana Bytheway said two-thirds of the people calling the service over the past few days had been asking about the vaccine mandate.

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She said the advice those people were offered might differ but, generally, the service had to explain the mandate did mean people could lose their jobs.

"Basically, we say that employers don't have a choice but to exclude employees from these workplaces and the employees' inability to work means that they're probably not entitled to be paid," she said.

"Sometimes it may justify termination.

"Of course, medical exemptions do apply, but they've got to be real medical exemptions."

Ms Bytheway said employees being granted a medical exemption was rare.

She also said that, before an employer dismissed someone for being unvaccinated and without a valid exemption, they may need to consider reasonable alternatives, such as paid or unpaid leave, or enabling the employee to work from home.

After industry-specific vaccine mandates were introduced for residential aged care, construction and education there were correlating spikes in demand to JobWatch from people working in those areas.

Ms Bytheway said some common questions from people calling up included those wanting advice from a medical specialist before getting vaccinated who were unable to get an appointment before the deadline, and people who were asking if they could present other evidence for a medical exemption in lieu of documentation from a doctor.

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"Essentially, the fundamental principle is you need to be vaccinated under these mandates to attend the workplace unless you've got an authorised exemption," she said.

Plea to get any vaccine before first exposure

Monash University epidemiologist James Trauer said the vaccines Australians had access to were all safe and effective, and urged people not to wait to get vaccinated.

"They all do have slightly different characteristics but, essentially, they're all showing really high levels of effectiveness in all the clinical trials and then also the observational studies after they've been rolled out to populations," he said.

He said it was crucial for unvaccinated people to take the opportunity to get a vaccine before they were exposed to COVID-19 in the community.

"There's still a window of opportunity to do that in Australia," Dr Trauer said.

"Your real, high-risk exposure is your first exposure."

He said that places such as Sydney and Melbourne would continue to see high case numbers over the coming months, and those waiting for a different vaccine were putting themselves at risk by not opting for the vaccines already available.

"People are likely to get their first exposure during that time," he said.

"If you can possibly get a course of vaccine in ahead of that period, which means getting out and getting what's available now, that's going to be so much more useful."

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'That's the way it is': Some back mandate

Brendan Allen, a qualified carpenter who runs a small business in Melbourne's east, said he was relieved that vaccination had been made mandatory in his industry.

"It's simple for us now, it's either get it done or you can't work," he said.

"If people are wanting to choose that, well it's simple, they can't come on site."

Mr Allen has already been fully vaccinated and he said it made his life easier that the government had mandated the vaccine instead of leaving it up to private businesses or individual sectors to implement as a policy.

"It's nothing I've told them to do or choose," he said.

"If you're an essential worker, you've got to be vaccinated and if you want to work, that's the way it is."

When Premier Daniel Andrews announced last Friday, October 1, that a vaccine mandate would apply to all authorised workers in Victoria, he said the decision was made to enable the state to safely reopen over the coming weeks and months.

More than a million people count as authorised workers and, under the change, they have until mid-October to have had at least one COVID-19 vaccine to continue working. A large number of those would have already been vaccinated.

"This is about making sure that we go that extra mile to protect the roadmap to opening ... and to make sure that we can open, be free, and not have our health system overwhelmed with patients who are completely avoidable," Mr Andrews said.

Some organisations have raised significant concerns about the decision to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for such a large group of people.

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The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) has said there are strong justifications for exploring mandatory vaccines in high-risk industries such as disability, aged care and health care, but authorities such as governments and employers must "tread carefully" outside those areas.

HRLC's executive director, Hugh de Kretser, said vaccine hesitancy was dropping in both Victoria and New South Wales and the states were on track to have 90 per cent of the adult population fully vaccinated.

"Right now, governments should be focused on vaccine supply, promotion and access and ensuring equitable coverage particularly of high risk groups like Aboriginal people," Mr de Kretser said.

"Outside of high-risk areas like aged care, health and disability services, vaccine workplace mandates should be a last resort."

Liberty Victoria, a civil and human rights organisation, has also publicly stated that widespread vaccine mandates should be a "last resort" option and that incentives such as vaccine passports were preferable.

"The widespread use of mandates should only be used where it is clear that sufficient rates of vaccination will not be achieved by people receiving the vaccine voluntarily, where there is a high risk of transmission and illness, and alternatives to encourage voluntary vaccination have been exhausted," the statement said.

Motion due in Upper House today

The motion due to be introduced into the Victorian Parliament today by Liberal Democrat MP David Limbrick will ask the state government to reveal what medical advice and human rights considerations led to its decision.

Mr Limbrick said he was concerned about human rights breaches and it was important for more information to be released about the justification behind the vaccine mandate.

He said there were concerns about medical consent and privacy.

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"We think that, regardless of your position on vaccine mandate, the Victorian public deserves to know what human rights considerations were taken into account," he said.

The MP said the vaccine mandate had already led to civil unrest, pointing to protests that have taken place in Melbourne over recent weeks.

Shadow Attorney-General Tim Smith said the opposition would back the motion when it was introduced in the Upper House, where Labor does not have a majority.

"Show us the advice underpinning the health orders that the Chief Health Officer signs off on," he said.

Mr Smith said he supported mandatory vaccines for high-risk industries such as health care, but he said the vaccine mandate for all of Victoria's authorised workers had not been considered carefully enough.

He said that, in his view, it was unclear if judges — who are categorised as authorised workers — could be sacked if they were not vaccinated.

However, he did not back questions about whether the mandate infringed on people's human rights.

"I wouldn't call it a breach of human rights at all," he said.

"I would say that it was a rushed announcement that was panicked and, for example, it can't possibly be applied to the bench."

Meanwhile, the state MP for Mildura, Ali Cupper, has slammed her federal counterpart, Anne Webster, for starting a petition against the vaccine mandate.

Ms Cupper described the petition as "unhelpful" and "irresponsible".

*Ebony is an alias

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Smooth start to vaccine passport trial in regional Victoria .
Regional venues participating in a COVID-19 vaccine passport trial say the system ran seamlessly on its first day, but the technology is set to come under pressure as more sites join the trial.Regional venue operators who have joined a COVID-19 vaccine passport trial say the system ran smoothly on its first day, but the technology is set to come under greater pressure as more sites join the trial throughout the week.

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