Covid vaccination rates among some health workers are lower than the general population but making it compulsory to get vaccinated could backfire, the Council of Trade Unions warns.
The Government is actively considering making vaccination mandatory for some of the health workforce. There is some support for such a step, including from GPs and emergency doctors.
The question of how to treat employees who choose to remain unvaccinated goes beyond the health sector, with major businesses in New Zealand surveying staff about both their attitudes to vaccination, and possible exclusion of unvaccinated workers from offices.
Richard Wagstaff, president of the Council of Trade Unions, which represents more than 320,000 members in 27 affiliated unions, including many in health, told the Herald on Sunday that a blanket vaccination order for health workers could do more harm than good.
"Broadly speaking, our view is that the most important thing is to promote, educate and support people to get vaccinated. That really is so important before you go near mandating.
"Mandating it can create resistance rather than support - that sense of coercion ... don't come in hamfisted and say, 'Thou shalt be vaccinated or else you will be fired'. Because we just think if we go there quickly, it will get the wrong result and there will be staff shortages."
Vaccination coverage among health workers is unclear. Some DHBs have still not released such information. The Herald on Sunday has been told a significant number of nurses remain unvaccinated in some areas (the Nurses Organisation declined to comment for this article).
Wagstaff couldn't provide coverage rates among CTU members.
"We know there are pockets [of unvaccinated workers] in different places," he said.
"For example, in parts of the funded health sector - not the direct employees, but parts that are contracted in like disability, home support, addiction services, mental health and the community - there are quite high unvaccinated rates. I don't have a number for you, but I think it is higher than the general population."
Last month the Herald revealed the Government was considering mandatory vaccination for some health workers. A spokesperson for Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the change remains "under active consideration and we expect to consult with the workforce soon".
In support is the NZ Medical Association, which says no doctor should be involved in patient care unless they are vaccinated against Covid-19, given the risk to patients, including many who have serious health conditions or are immunocompromised.
NZMA chairman Dr Alistair Humphrey said a recent Employment Relations Authority decision found MIQ workers could be justifiably dismissed, should they choose not to be vaccinated, because there was a duty of care to ensure people's health isn't put at risk.
"It is all the more important that doctors are vaccinated as they have both an ethical and a legal obligation not to put their vulnerable patients at risk."
Dr John Bonning, president of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, said his personal view, shared by most colleagues on both sides of the Tasman, was Covid vaccination should be mandatory for healthcare workers.
Such orders were in place in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, Bonning said, and were important to protect both staff and patient.
In the United Kingdom, about one in five patients hospitalised with Covid-19 caught the virus in hospital.
United States President Joe Biden recently ordered vaccine requirements for as many as 100 million people, including some private sector workers as well as those in healthcare, saying of the unvaccinated: "We've been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us."
Wagstaff said Americans had access to Covid vaccination for much longer than New Zealanders.
"Their context is after a long period of encouragement. We don't need to go there right now, in my view ... I can't stress enough, the first priority must be the support, promotion, ease of getting vaccinated. It's so important that we don't skip that step."