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New Zealand Requires Port Workers to Get Vaccinated

ports of auckland
Courtesy Ports of Auckland

Published Jul 12, 2021 9:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

At ports around the world, dockers have clamored for access to vaccines, with unions and terminal operators advocating for priority front-line worker status for longshoremen. The government of New Zealand heeded that call and went one step further: it is making vaccination mandatory for private-sector port workers. 

"I am extending the mandatory [vaccination] order to cover a further 1800 currently unvaccinated active border workers. This is necessary to lift the uptake of the vaccine among the wider border workforce and strengthen our ongoing response to Covid-19," said COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. "As well as workers at managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities, workers at our ports and airports who are at the greatest risk of exposure to COVID-19 must now be vaccinated."

According to Hipkins, only 54 percent of New Zealand's active port workers have been fully vaccinated. He called for boosting this number to minimize the risk of COVID-19 entering the country via its ports. 

New Zealand is one of the very few nations with no community coronavirus cases at all. Through a combination of border controls, contact tracing, mask mandates and vaccination, its government has eliminated COVID-19 in the population (with the exception of a few dozen cases caught at border checks and housed in managed quarantine). With no community spread to manage, New Zealand's government only has to prevent reintroduction of the disease from international arrivals, and the vaccine mandate is part of that effort.

The new legislation gives a weeks-long window for longshoremen to get vaccinated. All government employees covered by the order must have their first dose by August 26, and privately employed border workers must have their first dose by September 30. All new workers covered by the order will need to have their first dose before starting work.

"Border workers who remain unvaccinated after the requirements come into effect will need to discuss options with their employer. They will not be able to continue working in a high-risk border environment until they are vaccinated," Hipkins said.

At a press conference Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told media that the government has allowed time for port workers to obtain the vaccine voluntarily, but the uptake rate has not been high enough. Her administration has received criticism for failing to require vaccination of border workers sooner: previous outbreak clusters in New Zealand have been linked back to airport and port workers, and while these personnel already fall under COVID-19 testing mandates, they have not yet been required to vaccinate.

"Having them vaccinated at the frontline is critical to maintaining elimination because it sets up a safety barrier at the border," epidemiologist Prof. Michael Baker told the New Zealand Herald.