The Ministry of Health says it "knows it has work to do" to lift port worker vaccinations amid growing frustration at a lack of information about vaccine rates among those who work wharfside but are not directly employed by ports.
The quarantining of three vessels whose crews arrived infected with Covid has highlighted possible gaps in border protection, with anecdotal reports the vaccination rate is low among the big workforce employed by port contractors.
Ports which directly employ most of their stevedores or wharfside workers have good oversight of vaccination rates, with employees captured in the Government's first vaccination order for frontline border workers last year.
But stevedores at some ports in New Zealand's $1.16 billion port industry, such as Port of Tauranga, are employed by contracted service providers or cargo owners, in the case of bulk cargoes.
About 6000 people can regularly visit the port for work over a week or two, Port of Tauranga said. Almost all of the port's eligible frontline staff had been vaccinated.
Ports of Auckland employs its own stevedores but said the workforce which visited the ports "in their hundreds" each week to service ship visits included the employees of contractors such as stevedores and provedores.
The Auckland Council-owned port company shared the concerns about the lack of vaccine data, a spokesman said. However he noted the Government's recent new order which further extended the compulsion for border workers to be vaccinated.
"Up until now there's been no obligation for people to tell us if they've been vaccinated, but the new order changes that."
Port of Tauranga chief executive Leonard Sampson said he was awaiting responses from contractors as to vaccination levels among their employees. The port was trying to understand the potential impact on various services.
Anecdotally, rates seemed to vary considerably among contractor teams, the Tauranga port said. The reasons for the perceived low rates included shift workers having difficulty getting time off work to meet appointments, vaccine hesitancy and resistance, and lack of urgency because of non-compulsion to date.
In response to Herald inquiries, the health ministry said as at July 21, 1503 of the approximate 2700 frontline port workers in New Zealand were fully vaccinated and 103 had had one dose. The remainder were due to be vaccinated in the next two months.
But the ministry did not as requested say how many of that workforce were port contractor employees. This supports frustration being expressed in the port sector at being unable to access official vaccination data because the ministry cites privacy reasons.
The Government has recently made an order for more of the border workforce to be vaccinated. Privately employed border workers must have had their first dose by September 30 and new workers will need to have their first jab before starting work. The 1100 port workers still to be vaccinated according to the ministry, will come under this order.
The ministry said the number of port workers continued to fluctuate due to the ever-changing size, complexity and composition of the border workforce. New frontline ports employees were required to be fully vaccinated.
"We know we have work to do to encourage stronger uptake in the port sector. It is important to all of us that our port workers are empowered to discuss any issues regarding vaccination with their whanau and communities, so we'll work with our DHBs and the wider health sector to provide trustworthy information."
DHBs would prioritise books for affected workers not yet vaccinated, the ministry said.
While the Government's strengthened vaccination order is welcomed by the port industry, it is also sparking some concern if employees refuse vaccination and so lose their jobs.
The Port of Tauranga notes that there is already a labour shortage in the sector and it expects that to worsen. It also said further cargo delays were likely.
The company said it believed its port workers were at a low risk of contracting or transmitting Covid-19 due to the extensive precautions it had successfully implemented for more than a year.
"Vaccination is a useful tool but we will continue to rely on all other measures too," it said in a statement.
The port strongly encouraged vaccination, providing vaccination stations for eligible staff on site and education.