We now find ourselves trapped in a Covid Catch-22. The Government will not allow us to return to normality until we reach some (unstated) level of vaccination, yet there is no real incentive for the unvaccinated to do the right thing.
And, while we are relatively safe and the economy is doing okay overall, that is cold comfort to those who are watching their businesses go under, or missing out on their education, or marooned overseas, or unable to welcome their families' new-borns or farewell those who have passed away. It's time for a circuit breaker.
The unvaccinated would appear logically to fall into three groups. First are those who, for genuine medical reasons, cannot receive the vaccine. They should of course be excused from vaccination, subject to certification from a registered medical professional. Given evidence, at least from developed countries, that the vast majority of Covid infections and deaths are occurring in the unvaccinated, they deserve a high level of protection.
Then there are what I suspect is a small group of hard-core anti-vaxxers. They are prepared to ignore the fact that vaccination has saved countless lives since Edward Jenner invented the vaccine for smallpox (now eradicated worldwide) over 200 years ago. Yet one imagines that, were they to be injured in a car accident, or suffer from cancer, or have a stroke, they would be perfectly happy to avail themselves of the benefits of hundreds of years of medical science.
Third, and likely the significant majority, are those who have some low level anxiety about vaccination, or cannot be bothered making the effort to be vaccinated, or don't have a sufficient sense of community responsibility to do the right thing in the interests of their fellow Kiwis. At present there is little disadvantage for them in rejecting vaccination because the rest of us are being locked down to protect them and to avoid swamping the health system. They are literally holding us hostage.
Yet the fact that local vaccination rates go up in response to local outbreaks suggests that this group is open to persuasion. Unfortunately governments, by their very nature, are disinclined to engage in the kinds of persuasion that might make them unpopular.
So what might employers and organisations do to help government open the country up?
First, let's make it an immediate requirement that all our new employees be vaccinated, and – most importantly – publicise that requirement: No jab, no new job.
Second, let's explore every possible situation in which vaccination could be required of our current employees. Government has shown some leadership here with the recent announcement of mandated vaccination for health and some education workers (though curiously, in the latter group, not until January 1 next year).
There will be many other employers who can make the case that their employees must be vaccinated, either on health and safety grounds or because they will not be allowed to enter the homes or businesses of those who are vaccinated.
While the process of achieving this will take time – proposing changes to policies or employment agreements, consulting on them with staff and unions, making amendments based on feedback, instituting the changes, consulting on alternative opportunities (if any) for those who remain unvaccinated (medical dispensation aside) – the mere fact of doing it will send very strong signals to the laggards: No jab, no job.
Such an approach is not without risk, but neither is seeing yours or related businesses go under.
Finally, and acknowledging that many businesses are struggling, let's ensure that wherever possible only those who are vaccinated can enter food and drink establishments, attend events or benefit from the social activities that most of us crave – now more than ever. No jab, no jive?
Imagine a New Zealand in which those who chose to remain unvaccinated, and thus to place the rest of us at risk, knew that they would be unable to travel (domestically or internationally), or to study, or to go to events or restaurants or bars, or to take up new job opportunities, or potentially to retain their current jobs.
I suggest that vaccination rates would skyrocket and that we would soon all be released from what currently feels like never-ending house arrest.
• Stuart McCutcheon was previously Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland.