While the Australian Government has said the coronavirus vaccine won’t be mandatory, some industries may insist their workers get the jab, experts say.
Key points:Experts say the aged care industry needs a consistent approach to a vaccination roll-out to protect vulnerable AustraliansBut what might be considered reasonable in the context of aged care or a hospital is likely to be different to an officeThey say punitive measures unlikely to boost immunisation numbers against COVID-19
Up to 680,000 people are set to receive the first lot of vaccinations from mid-to-late February. That group includes quarantine and border workers, frontline health workers, and aged care and disability staff and residents.
The aged care industry needs a consistent approach to the vaccination rollout, according to Aged & Community Services Australia chief executive Patricia Sparrow, with everything possible being done to protect vulnerable older Australians.
“We know that if COVID-19 gets into an aged care facility, it does have a really terrible outcome,” Ms Sparrow said.
“We really need to make sure that we continue all that infection control, we have to do everything to protect those older people.”
Catch up on the main COVID-19 news from January 20 with our coronavirus blog.
Visitors and workers in aged care facilities must have a flu vaccination under state and territory directions put in place last flu season.
“If we do it for the flu, you would think it’s the right approach to also do that for COVID-19,” Ms Sparrow said.
What might be reasonable in a hospital might not suit an office
Legal experts say an employer’s right to impose a vaccine policy comes down to workplace health and safety.
Employers running high-risk workplaces have a legal requirement to provide a safe working environment, according to Karl Rozenbergs, partner at Hall & Wilcox.
Stay up-to-date on the coronavirus outbreak
“This is fundamentally a health and safety issue,” Mr Rozenbergs said.
“A direction to get the vaccine is more likely to be lawful and reasonable for businesses that face higher risks of an outbreak.
“Examples include hospitals and aged care facilities, businesses that involve working with children who are too young to have been vaccinated themselves, and businesses that involve other forms of physical interaction.”
As the risks are higher in health and aged care, employers in those areas will be expected to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory.(Getty Images: ~User7565abab_575)
But what is considered reasonable in the context of a hospital is likely to be different to the context of a construction site or an office when implementing a workplace vaccine policy.
“If you’re in aged care, you’re a nurse, the risks are higher and yes, the employer could make the direction,” Mr Rozenbergs said.
“But in an office, probably not.”
It’s the same logic for whether an employer can terminate an employee for not taking the vaccine.
“An employee who is dismissed for preventing their employer from meeting its WHS obligations through their refusal is unlikely to succeed in making an unfair dismissal claim,” he said.
Punitive measures could still be put in place
Mandating a vaccine for most Australians wouldn’t be as simple as it sounds.
The Government can technically make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory because of their broad powers in a public health emergency under the Commonwealth Biosecurity Act 2015, and other State and Territory public health legislation.
The Federal Government says the AstraZeneca vaccine will be available throughout the year.(Reuters: Gareth Fuller)
But governments can only do so provided the vaccine is safe, according to Hall & Wilcox partner Alison Choy-Flannigan.
“Arguably, the power can only be used if the vaccine is safe and approved … and exceptions are made for those people who are allergic to the vaccine,” she said.
And while the Australian COVID-19 vaccination policy stipulates the jab “is not mandatory and individuals may choose not to vaccinate”, that doesn’t mean punitive measures and incentives won’t be put in place to encourage high uptake.
It’s been done before. The No Jab, No Pay policy reduces access to some social security payments if a child’s shots are not up to date.
The punishment played a part in an extra 174,000 children being immunised across the country in 2018. Likewise, the No Jab, No Play policy limits access to childcare services in most states.
But some childcare providers are hesitant to implement such an approach for the COVID-19 vaccine, especially without explicit government backing.
Read more about coronavirus:
Paul Mondo, president of the Australian Childcare Alliance that works on behalf of long day care owners and operators, says they “will do all that we can to ensure everyone is vaccinated, but we are not asking for it to be mandatory at this stage”.
Similarly, at the Early Learning and Care Council, chief executive Elizabeth Death says, “members will comply with government directives, mandatory or otherwise.”
Nearly half of women in their 30s have concerns over vaccine’s safety
Promoting a vaccine to an adult population is unchartered territory for the Australian Government, according to postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sydney, Dr Jane Williams.
Coronavirus questions answered
Breaking down the latest news and research to understand how the world is living through an epidemic, this is the ABC’s Coronacast podcast.
The immunisation rate in Australia is high, at 95 per cent, but that’s for five-year-old children.
The Department of Health’s own research findings from November showed only 80 per cent of Australians intended to vaccinate.
“So much of what we’ve done before has been focusing on kids,” she said.
“It’s really important that we avoid a one-size-fits-all or even a one-size-fits-most approach when communicating about the vaccine.”
The government research also found almost half of women in their 30s have concerns about the safety of the vaccine or its long-term side effects. That’s compared to the overall level of safety concern — 27 per cent.
“We need to fund good research and good communications to ask why is that group more concerned than other people, and how can we talk to them in a way that reaches them,” Dr Williams said.
But Dr Williams warns against mandating the coronavirus vaccine to boost immunisation numbers.
“I think mandating a vaccine would be a fairly good way of harming trust in public health institutions and that feels like an incredibly wrong thing to do during a pandemic,” she said.
Even punitive measures are unlikely to have a positive outcome.
“We do know that punishing people for not being vaccinated tends to unfairly disadvantage people who are already disadvantaged,” the health ethics researcher said.
“The things that are really important are excellent communication, transparency and making sure communication is tailored to lots of different groups.”
What you need to know about coronavirus: