Truck drivers need to be prioritised for vaccine

Despite what you hear at the Government’s daily public relations press conferences, getting the Covid-19 vaccine in New Zealand is a bit like throwing the little ball into the roulette wheel at the casino – it’s a game of chance.

My luck came in on the weekend when I got a call to say the local vaccination centre had 1,000 doses of the vaccine and only 500 people had turned up; so, 500 vaccines were going spare.

I packed the parents in the car and got down there as fast as I could. I was lucky enough to be offered the jab while I was there and I gladly took it, while feeling slightly guilty that so many people I know in Wellington in the high-risk categories are still waiting for their call up. If I’d had more time to think about it, I would have put the call out far and wide, but it all happened so quickly. 

Unfortunately, as we watch what is happening in the other largely unvaccinated country across the Tasman, we’d like to see better odds for the likes of truck drivers who are at risk if there is a leak of the Delta variant of Covid-19 here.

I say that as I look out at the “covid ship” in Wellington harbour – the Viking Bay fishing vessel that berthed here with most of its crew infected and ashore at a Wellington hotel. Other boats are now docking at other ports around New Zealand with crews ill with Covid-19.

Most people will be familiar with the removal crew in Australia who took their Covid-19 from New South Wales to Victoria and South Australia. They have created serious problems for the two additional states they worked in.

We are in the same spot as Australia. While the rest of the world has high vaccination rates, we don’t, and that leaves us vulnerable.

It is unclear how our vaccination roll out is actually working – different to what is being said about how it is working. Much of Auckland seems to be able to get the vaccine, while the rest of the country waits. And the Government are planning a mass Covid-19 vaccination event in south Auckland at the end of July where people in the lower risk group 4 will be vaccinated before those in the higher risk groups 1, 2 and 3.

Earlier this week, the Government announced mandatory vaccination for workers at ports and airports who are the greatest risk of exposure to Covid-19. This is in addition to workers at Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) facilities.

Trucks service all of these places. This is why we wrote to Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins in January this year asking for truck drivers to be given priority for vaccination. He replied in March directing us to Government websites for information. No priority given.

With the global disruption in the supply chain, truck drivers can spend considerable time on ports waiting to load or unload. And how do you think food and other goods are delivered to the MIQ facilities, or goods off planes and to their final destination?

With this week’s announcement there are changes to the COVID-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Amendment Order 2021. Reading Schedule 2 Groups of affected persons I would suggest truck drivers would fit into some of the groups outlined, although they are not specifically listed.

We’ve been asking from the start about when truck drivers could be prioritised for vaccination. It seems that national co-ordination has gone out the window and it’s down to who you hear from in your local area on the bush telegraph. Fine for many of us, but it’s not addressing high needs groups in a systematic way. We should be doing so much better; perhaps get a logistics company or two to run this, not policy wonks who have only ever dealt in the theoretical. 

And while it is now mandatory for some workers to get the vaccine, where do they go to get it?

I’m not the first, nor will I be the last person representing groups of people impacted by Covid-19 professionally to ask the Government to show us the plan moving forward and to be open and transparent about the vaccine rollout and who they are prioritising.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Covid system flaws need to be fixed without a blame game

Each day seems to bring more confusion about New Zealand’s roll out of the Covid-19 vaccine, and the safety of our border given the lack of tracking of testing and vaccination for border workers.

We can be forgiven for thinking it’s all being made up on the fly.

As the biggest vaccination programme ever undertaken in New Zealand, no one expects it to be perfect. That means the government must be able to accept constructive criticism and be open and transparent on questions and answers to ensure confidence in the programme and indeed, in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

What we have seen, is the Prime Minister turn on individuals who have managed to slip through what appears to be a pretty loose system. This week it was a security guard she accused of lying about their Covid-19 testing. Prior to that it was the KFC worker who was very upset after she was accused of not following official advice and self-isolating, rather than working.

These are individuals who don’t earn a lot of money being publicly shamed by the Prime Minister. But they are the canaries in the coal mine if you like; the people who showed legitimate flaws in the government’s system. The best response is to fix the problem, not shoot the messenger.

The Prime Minister has also said the frontline border workers who aren’t vaccinated by the end of this month will no longer be working on the border. We are not sure what that means. Will they be fired? Or will they be redeployed? Given that the vaccine is not compulsory, what rights do these workers have? And what rights do employers have?

The pressure on frontline workers and particularly, those on the border, prompted me to write to the Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, in January this year.

Our industry is keen to understand when its frontline workers – mainly truck drivers – might be in line for a vaccination and whether they will have priority over the general population, given their importance in keeping the supply chain running. Many truck drivers interact with the border – at ports and airports – in the course of their daily work. We believe as such, they should be among the first groups to be vaccinated.

We are concerned truck drivers might be inadvertently exposed if there are requirements for all workers near the border to be vaccinated and they aren’t in the right line for the vaccine.

We aren’t trying to jump the queue, merely pointing out the situation truck drivers are in every day and asking for due consideration of that.

We also asked for legal clarification around employers being able to require their staff to be vaccinated, particularly those going into areas where vaccination is effectively, mandatory.

It was somewhat disappointing to receive a pro forma letter in response, which arrived in March. It directed us to government websites about the vaccines and the Public Service Commissioner’s guidance for public sector agencies and staff regarding the vaccination, as it is not mandatory.

Increasingly, the government relies on websites to engage with stakeholders when a conversation would be better. Covid-19 is a big deal and there is information we need to be able to interrogate. We are seeing ever diminishing opportunities to do that.

For those interested, Business New Zealand has published a guide for employers about Covid-19 vaccinations in the workplace, which you can find here.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum