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One of New Zealand's largest retirement village and aged-care providers is making it compulsory for new staff to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
Arvida Group chief operating officer Jeremy Nicoll today confirmed anyone joining the workforce in any of its 32 facilities across the country would need to consent to be inoculated against the deadly virus.
The measure had been introduced to protect the some 5000 residents who were considered among the most vulnerable in our community.
"As part of our employee handbook we require people to get annual vaccinations for flu which also now includes Covid-19 vaccinations as well," said Nicoll.
New applicants would be made aware of the requirement when applying for a job.
"For new staff it's part of the application process they go through. It's flagged as a question then it forms part of the employment agreement," he said.
It's a move welcomed by the country's aged-care association who said it would expect all frontline workers in the at-risk sector to be vaccinated.
"That has to be an expectation, indeed it has to be a priority for people working in a vulnerable setting with lots of frail old people" said New Zealand Aged Care Association chief executive Simon Wallace.
"The aged-care association would have an expectation that all its provider members would require their healthcare workers to have the Covid-19 vaccination," he said.
"I can't see any employer being flexible about this given the vulnerability of our residents."
It would also bring reassurance to family and relatives that all staff coming into contact with loved ones were vaccinated.
Nicoll said for those already with jobs but who objected to the Covid vaccination, extra measures would likely be taken to mitigate the threat posed to residents and staff.
"If someone gets to a point where they refuse to have a Covid vaccine then we have to look very seriously at do they have to be PPEed up to do their job, especially when things like the borders reopen and you've got people coming in from around the globe.
"It does open a can of worms, especially with our population base of customers which are obviously of a vulnerable age for the virus.
"Our number one priority is making sure that our residents are safe and making sure our staff are safe. You don't want someone turning up working that contracts the virus and then infects other people."
He said in recent years the workforce had readily complied with company policy to have the annual flu jab.
"I'm not aware of a huge number of people who kick up a fuss about that. We try and work with people to get them through the vaccination process. We encourage them and try and make it easy for them so have them done on site," said Nicoll.
Nurses employed with Arvida would be trained to administer the vaccine to its 2,500 mainly frontline workforce.
Epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker said vaccination requirements for occupational groups are common, particularly for healthcare workers.
"Depending on the vaccine, these requirements are justified to protect both workers and the people they are caring for," he said.
Bupa retirement village chain has said it would not make the vaccine mandatory for frontline workers.
"We will encourage and support our aged care workforce to have the vaccine in line with the Ministry of Health's public guidance," a spokesperson said.
Employment lawyer Barbara Buckett said the legal issue was complex.
Buckett said employers couldn't make existing staff get the vaccine, as it wouldn't be part of their contract.
"I think that would be an unreasonable move. But it would depend…if I don't take it, what then are the circumstances? If I have not got the vaccine and it is high-risk that I haven't been vaccinated, then that's another interesting issue. Am I able to make alternative arrangements for the workplace?"
However she said employers could make vaccination mandatory for new employees, but that would also be subject to possible exemptions, such as having a bad reaction to a vaccine in the past.
"It becomes unreasonable … to insist on you doing something that has been hazardous or risked your health at some earlier date."
The Covid-19 vaccine is free and not mandatory for the New Zealand public.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said in a statement it would soon provide guidance to businesses and workers about the employment law implications around the availability of Covid-19 vaccinations.
"This guidance ... will cover more specific scenarios and questions in relation to employment rights and obligations."
At this stage the vaccine rollout for health workforce was likely to be in the second tranche.
Of the country's 25 deaths through Covid, almost half involved residents from the Rosewood Rest Home and Hospital's psycho-geriatric dementia unit where 12 people died in the April outbreak.
By Lynley Ward, NZ Herald