Workers at businesses where vaccine passports are required will have four weeks to get the jab - or risk losing their jobs.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday announced a sweeping vaccine mandate in businesses in the hospitality sector, and others including gyms, barbers, and hairdressers where customers are expected to have vaccine certificates.
Ardern and Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood set out more details on when vaccine mandates can apply, following the announcement of the Government's new "traffic-light" system once the country has reached a double vaccination rate of 90 per cent. The system relies heavily on vaccination certificates.
Ardern said the government has already mandated for workers in certain sectors, such as healthcare, to be vaccinated. She said that in other high-risk areas, such as hospitality, workers should also be vaccinated.
"If customers should be vaccinated, so should staff", Ardern said, adding the system "was designed to bring simplicity to employers".
The timing of the new system coming into effect will depend on when Auckland and New Zealand moves into the government's new "traffic-light" system for managing the Delta outbreak - but it could come earlier in Auckland.
Wood urged workers in the affected areas to get vaccinated now, saying employers will have to consult workers and their representatives when making risk assessments about whether their staff need to be vaccinated.
Employers can exempt employees from their vaccination mandates, Wood said. That can include those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, though that is a very small number of Kiwis, he said.
Four-week termination process
According to Wood, the changes will raise questions about what happens when staff refuse to be vaccinated. A minimum four-week termination process will be introduced for any employee who loses their job for refusing a vaccination, he said.
The change will only apply to employees who don't have a notice period. Once the notice period starts, the worker will have the four-week period to get vaccinated and show proof of it, Wood said.
"Some employees may find it hard to get vaccinated because they don't have time amid their family commitments.
"To help with this, employers will be urged to allow their staff to be vaccinated during work hours and provide other measures to make it as easy as possible."
Wood said Worksafe NZ would be given a further $4.4m to help it with education and enforcement to ensure businesses and staff follow the new vaccine mandate.
Ardern said the new mandate was "absolutely not" a government overreach. She said the mandate extended the government's assessment of ensuring all high-risk areas are vaccinated.
This covered businesses where workers and customers are in close, confined spaces or in close contact with each other, such as at hairdressers.
She said it is fair that if customers must be vaccinated to access these businesses, then so should the staff in these places also be vaccinated.
The customers would expect this to happen, given they must be vaccinated, Ardern said.
When asked if those who lose their jobs for refusing to be vaccinated can still access government unemployment and other benefits, Ardern said they will be able to access these.
She said those who are unvaccinated will always be able to access health and other essential services, such as supermarkets.
The government was balancing the need to protect the vulnerable with "reasonable mandates and restrictions".
Mandate 'could be extended to other areas'
Wood said the government will also be looking at potentially extending the vaccine mandate to other areas. This could include public servants who work with vulnerable tenants in public housing and other marginalised areas.
Ardern said the new mandates would cover workplaces where the vast majority of people are already vaccinated, given the nation's single-dose vaccination rate was above 80 per cent now.
Asked if businesses with office workers who don't interact with customers and don't require vaccine certificates to offer their services could require their staff to be vaccinated, Ardern said that would be based on their own risk assessments.
Wood said the government would raise the sense of risk that Covid posed, which could strengthen the case for businesses to assess Covid as being risky to their businesses. The idea of doing this was to make it clear and simple for small businesses, in particular, to undertake risk assessments.
When asked if there might be a time when certificates may not be necessary because vaccination rates hit high levels, Ardern said it is possible. That had happened overseas with some countries moving away from vaccine certificates but potentially moving back to them in winter when Covid posed a great threat, Ardern said.
She said those countries may potentially also move back to a vaccine certificate system in the event booster shots are needed and a large percentage of the population were yet to get their third shot.
Wood said Cabinet held the view that the public health consideration that people had a right to feel safe in public spaces override the rights of workers in these industries to be unvaccinated.
The government was "very careful" to ensure everything it did in regards to vaccine mandates had a public health basis to it - and also that the public rights versus the individual's rights were balanced, Ardern added.
Wood: Workers can still take employer to court
Wood said he envisaged the new vaccine mandate rules would come under the current legislation overseeing laws used to manage Covid in New Zealand.
However, workers would still be able to test their employment rights in court, he said.
The Minister was confident that businesses would not be put at risk of litigation by following the government's vaccine mandate or using its risk assessment guidance to bring in their own workplace vaccine mandates.
Wood said that when the new laws come into effect, employers will need to go through a reasonable process with their staff. That will include considering whether the staff can be moved to a new area that doesn't require them to get a vaccination.
However, once that process is complete, the four-week termination notice period will start.
Businesses can already undertake risk assessments about vaccine mandates and the new laws to back these up were being rushed forward, Wood said.
Number of new cases 'stabilised'
Ardern was asked why the government earlier allowed workers moving in and out of the Auckland border, such as truck drivers, to do so without mandated vaccines but was now rushing to install vaccine mandates across a wide spectrum of industries.
To this, she said it was because the government had worked systematically through high-risk sectors.
That included targeting border workers and then moving into the health and education sectors.
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said the health advice in regards to people moving in and out of Auckland was predominantly about ensuring they were Covid tested. The focus after that was on making sure that these workers, such as truck drivers, were able to get vaccinated as easily as possible.
He said that the new vaccine mandates focused on people working in industries where people - including workers and customers - interacted closely.
By contrast, there was a low risk of truck drivers spreading the virus in situations where they are regularly tested because they tended not to have close interactions with others, Bloomfield said.
Ardern said the growth of new Covid cases in the outbreak had stabilised at the moment and wasn't growing exponentially.
When asked why some vaccination centres were closed on the long weekend, Bloomfield said there was still more than 100 vaccination centres open. There was also special initiatives undertaken and as a result, there were still good vaccination numbers achieved in Auckland and Northland, Bloomfield said.
Ardern said the government took on the feedback of medical experts in regards to setting a Māori vaccination target.
However, the government didn't set a Māori vaccination target because by setting an overall 90 per cent target that was "very high" ensured good vaccination coverage across the community.
Bloomfield said the final policy for setting a vaccination target was different to the policy draft seen by medical experts now criticising the government for not setting a Māori vaccination target.
Bloomfield said that only 6 per cent of over-65-year-olds have been admitted to hospital in the current Delta outbreak.
He said that among over-65s there is high vaccination rates among all community ethnic groups.
Ardern said the government's Covid response is uncharted. It combines a high vaccination target, with border controls and ongoing public health restrictions to take the country forward, but safely, she said.
The Covid outbreak's current R infection rate is between 1.2 and 1.3, Bloomfield said. This R rate has remained consistent over the past few weeks.
Bloomfield said the Ministry of Health had been building up its contact tracing team since the start of the Delta outbreak. They were also adapting the team to a new way of contact tracing under the upcoming traffic light system.
That could for instance mean focusing contact tracing and public notifications on more complex Covid cases or people who are in closer proximity to other unvaccinated or vulnerable people.
The "traffic-light system" will see businesses that opt to only allow vaccinated people into their premises operate under far fewer restrictions than those who decline to use vaccination certificates.
The government has already moved to mandate vaccinations for schools, health workers and in prisons – primarily Government workers.
However, there have been calls for more clarity about how private sector workplaces can operate and whether they can mandate vaccinations or fire workers who refuse to get vaccinated.
Last Friday, Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government had been talking to business groups and unions about what the vaccination certificates would mean for employment law.
He said a bill to introduce the vaccination certificate changes would be introduced to Parliament in the second week of November, and that would also give legal certainty to businesses considering a vaccination requirement for their staff.
"That's thrown up a handful of issues that they want greater clarity on, so we're working through that at the moment."
The move has come under criticism from National and Act for creating different "classes" of people – despite both also supporting the use of vaccine certificates.
The rules need to be set out fairly quickly: Auckland will be able to move to the red light of the traffic lights system once 90 per cent of its DHBs are at 90 per cent, expected to be in six to eight weeks' time.
There were 79 new Covid community cases today after a long weekend which saw a dip in the number of tests and vaccinations carried out. Of those, 33 were unlinked as of 10am today.
Of the new cases, 75 are in Auckland and four are in Waikato.
Tomorrow Hipkins will also set out decisions on the future of MIQ. He said this morning that would include shorter MIQ stays for vaccinated people coming from lower-risk countries.
"Changes will be phased in so that eventually, next year, MIQ will focus more on domestic cases, with fully vaccinated border arrivals facing fewer and fewer restrictions, but more testing."
He said there were fewer positive cases arriving at the border, and the risk from vaccinated Kiwis returning home relative to cases in the community was already changing markedly.
From November 1, being fully vaccinated will be mandatory for all arriving non-New Zealand citizens.