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Customs sacks nine border workers for refusing Covid-19 vaccine

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 2 May 2021, 9:54AM
Photo / Alex Burton
Photo / Alex Burton

Customs sacks nine border workers for refusing Covid-19 vaccine

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 2 May 2021, 9:54AM

Nine Customs workers have been sacked for refusing the Covid-19 vaccine, including four from a single provincial port.

Their contracts were terminated after Customs was unable to find a suitable alternative role for the workers.

It comes as more trouble hit the Tasman travel bubble overnight.

Flights from Western Australia to New Zealand were cancelled last night after a security guard in a Perth MIQ facility tested positive for Covid.

An Air New Zealand flight and a Singapore Airlines that were due to take off from Perth and land in Auckland this morning were cancelled, but there is still uncertainty over flights headed to Western Australia from New Zealand.

Air NZ flight NZ175 bound for Perth this morning has been delayed until 2.30pm but staff at the airport could not confirm to the Herald if the delay is because of a Perth MIQ worker testing positive. Qantas told the Herald it has no scheduled flights from Western Australia to New Zealand today, and all flights were operating as usual.

The Ministry of Health says the next update will be issued at 1pm today.

New Zealand's Covid-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order came into force at 11.59pm on Friday, April 30, and requires all workers in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities and those who work for Government agencies at the border to be vaccinated.

Customs people and capability deputy chief executive Jacinda Funnell confirmed to Stuff that nine employees, including the four at the provincial port, had their contracts terminated because they were unvaccinated.

One maritime border worker, who asked not to be named, told Stuff she was devastated to be sacked after what she said was a lack of consultation by the agency.

They were not being offered redundancy payments because their roles were not being disestablished, Customs said. The agency defended its communications with the workers.

Catherine Stewart, an Auckland employment lawyer, reportedly said employers of workers required to be vaccinated were likely to be able to "substantively justify dismissing an unvaccinated employee".

Under the Covid-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order they could show they were unable to lawfully keep an unvaccinated person in the role.

But she said the employer would also need to follow a robust process.

"This means that they should consult with staff and, if a worker is reluctant to be vaccinated, ascertain the reasons for this and work with them to try to persuade them effectively to be vaccinated," she told Stuff.

"If the worker is still unwilling to be vaccinated then the employer should consider alternatives and try to redeploy the worker into a role that does not require vaccination, in order to save the worker's employment."

While it was an employee's choice, the consequence of not vaccinating could be the loss of their job.

One of the workers who worked until Friday at a provincial port monitoring international ships to make sure the crew took appropriate Covid precautions told Stuff she never came into contact with the crew, and believed there was insufficient risk to justify her being required to vaccinated.

She would not disclose her reasons for not getting the vaccine.

In a letter sent to her on Friday, Customs said the nature of her position meant it was not possible to modify her role to reduce her exposure to Covid-19.

Meetings have been held with the woman's law advocate Ashleigh Fechney in Christchurch, where Customs disagreed they were in effect going through a redundancy process and that there was insufficient health and safety risk to require mandatory vaccination.

In a letter, the agency said the roles were ongoing.

"Given the matters we discussed at the meeting, including the reasons why Customs requires your position to be performed by a vaccinated person, the Government's requirement that non-vaccinated border workers stop working in those positions by May 1, and the absence of suitable redeployment opportunities, we advised that Customs had decided to terminate your employment as proposed," the letter said.

More than 95 per cent of Customs staff have had their first dose and more than 85 per cent the second dose, Funnell said.

Perth-NZ flights should be 'immediately paused'

The Ministry of Health (MOH) announced shortly after 10pm last night that officials had "conducted a rapid public health assessment for New Zealand" and decided flights from Western Australia to New Zealand should be paused.

The announcement came after a security guard working in hotel quarantine in Perth tested positive yesterday to Covid-19. Two of seven people sharing the man's house also returned positive results.

"Ministry officials have conducted a rapid public health assessment for New Zealand, and have determined scheduled direct flights from Western Australia to New Zealand should be immediately paused while a further assessment is carried out, including a further assessment and information from Australian health officials," the MOH statement said.

Western Australian health officials have determined a number of locations of interest listed on their website.

Anyone who has left Perth in the past four days and arrived in New Zealand should check these locations of interest.

Recent arrivals in New Zealand who have been at these locations of interest should self-isolate immediately and call Healthline in the morning for further advice.

More information would be released on Sunday, the ministry said.

Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan said in a press conference yesterday the state would not go into lockdown "at this point".

"But it's possible this could change by tomorrow or the day after," he said.

The security guard, a man in his 20s who lives in Nollamara, had had his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, McGowan said.

He had worked in the Pan Pacific Hotel on April 24, 25 and 26, during which time new arrivals were admitted to the hotel.

He worked on the same floor as two hotel quarantine residents who had tested positive for Covid-19.

"CCTV vision is being reviewed. However, there is no clear explanation at this point as to how the security guard could have been infected," McGowan said.

"It is possible transmission could have occurred while the international arrivals were admitted into hotel quarantine and possibly were transferred to their rooms.

"This is being investigated further."

The man's household included two guests from Canberra, McGowan said.

He said the man visited several locations in the community while likely to have been infectious, including a Northlands shopping centre, a Coles, a cafe and a mosque.

Locations of interest currently include:

  • Masjid Al Taqwa mosque at Mirrabooka on April 30 between 1.15pm and 2pm.
    • Coles at Prime West Northlands Shopping Centre at Balcutta on April 29 between 4.30pm and 5.15pm.
    • Agha Juice cafe at Joondanna on April 28 between 6.50pm and 8pm.
    • Smokemart in Prime West Northlands Shopping Centre at Balcutta on April 28 between 1.30pm and 3.15pm.
    • Northlands Fresh at Prime West Northlands Shopping Centre at Balcutta on April 28 between 1.30pm and 3.15pm.
    • Spudshed at Stirling on April 28 between 1.30am and 2.30am.
    • Swan Taxi Victoria Park on April 27 between 1.50pm and 2.45pm.


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