Covid 19 coronavirus: Opinion – An over-promise that leaves our borders vulnerable

OPINION:

A few weeks ago, we were shocked out of our blissful Covid-free haze by the Grand Millennium security guard who caught Covid-19 and had not been tested for five months.

The case exposed a gaping blind spot: we don’t know how many privately-contracted border workers outside of MIQ are missing their tests.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reassured us by saying that all border workers, from the end of April, would have to be vaccinated or they would be moved from the frontline.

But this appears to have been an over-promise at best – and disingenuous at worst – because the public health vaccination order now in effect doesn’t apply to all border workers.

It applies to all MIQ workers, workers involved in transporting travellers to and from MIQ, and “government officials” in airports and ports.

It also applies to privately-contracted workers outside of MIQ, but only to cabin crew who work on planes carrying international travellers from countries other than Australia.

How many frontline border workers, then, can legally work at the border without being vaccinated? We don’t know.

How many of them haven’t been vaccinated? We don’t know.

The Herald asked the Ministry of Health this question a week ago and no answer has been forthcoming.

Asked today, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said he didn’t know “but they’re certainly working on getting that information”.

The answer might be hundreds, and for all we know they might also be missing their regular tests.

The unvaccinated might include retail and hospitality workers at airports, privately-employed healthcare workers, engineers, or baggage-handlers, or any non-government worker who might come into contact with overseas arrivals.

Or airport cleaners, such as the one who caught Covid-19 after cleaning a plane that carried high-risk passengers.

Or privately contracted port workers, including pilots, workers loading and unloading international ships, or anyone who boards a ship that’s arrived from overseas.

Or non-government workers who come into contact with items that might be infected – such as the LSG SkyChefs worker who handled laundry from Auckland International Airport and is thought to have sparked the Valentine’s Day cluster.

These are the types of workers with legal obligations in the Public Health Response (Required Testing) Order, but who have no obligations in the Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order.

This highlights an apparent inconsistency: frontline workers who are considered to be high-risk enough to require regular testing, but who can go to work without being vaccinated.

Asked about this, Hipkins’ office said the minister was taking advice on how to expand the vaccination requirement to more border workers.

Requiring all the workers in the testing order to be vaccinated as well would have caused “significant disruption”, as many workers haven’t had the jab and would have had to stop working immediately – even though they’re in a priority group who started getting vaccinated more than two months ago.

An issue Hipkins’ office highlighted was whether the vaccination order would be enforceable if it was widened to more workers.

This is perhaps a hangover from the hole – highlighted by the Grand Millennium guard – in the testing system. He had a legal obligation to get tested, and his employer, First Security, was obliged to tell him when to get tested and to record the details of his tests.

Ardern and Hipkins also acknowledged the Government’s role in ensuring the law was followed.

That wasn’t done in First Security’s case, and it remains unclear if it has been done for any of the hundreds of private border employers outside MIQ.

Hipkins recently said a system-wide audit to check compliance would be too logistically complex and too expensive.

The now-mandatory register of border worker tests doesn’t necessarily help. It shows when each worker is tested, but not when workers need to be tested.

Hipkins added that the Government doesn’t audit every Kiwi to check if they’re breaking the law.

But the risk of non-compliance for your average Kiwi is not such a high-stakes game. Not every Kiwi is potentially coming into contact with the virus at the border and taking it into the community.

The cost of a level 3 lockdown – estimated at $200 million a week for Auckland – is also a hefty counter-argument for Hipkins’ claim that an audit would cost too much.

Ideally the Government would be able to ensure that all border workers are being tested regularly and are vaccinated.

Not doing compliance checks for testing is a fingers-crossed approach that is more suited to a roulette table than a Covid-19 response.

As is having no eyes on which privately-contracted workers at the border aren’t vaccinated.

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