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