Future of health workers uncertain as thousands remain unvaccinated ahead of deadline

Sydney Morning Herald, 15 September 2021

Thousands of unvaccinated NSW Health workers face being stood down or redeployed unless they get a jab by the end of the month, with one-in-six yet to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Health’s 140,000-strong workforce has been given the deadline to receive at least one jab, despite being able to access a vaccine since February when the first phases of the federal rollout began.

An email sent on Tuesday to Western Sydney Local Health District staff, covering hotspot hospitals such as Westmead and Blacktown, said almost 2000 district staff members had not received a single inoculation.

Eighty-eight per cent of all clinical staff in the state’s public health system has received the first dose and 81 per cent are fully vaccinated, as the September 30 deadline for health workers looms and the workforce faces its most difficult period in the pandemic.

Mandatory vaccination will take effect for school staff and early childhood educators on November 8, while hospitality workers will also require two jabs in time for the industry reopening in mid-October.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Wednesday said the state was in “unchartered territory” when it came to enforcing vaccinations and would need to seek legal advice.

Ms Berejiklian would not be drawn on whether healthcare workers and school staff would lose their jobs if they did not take up a vaccine, but said the government was committed to the deadlines.

“We’ve made very clear that if you’re providing service in a health facility, in a health setting, you need to be vaccinated by a certain time,” she said. “They’re not the easiest issues, and we’re working through those issues as we speak”.

Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said she was confident that health care workers would continue to achieve high vaccination in the interest of their patients.

NSW reported 1259 new local coronavirus cases and 12 deaths on Wednesday, as the curfew in the 12 local government areas of concern was lifted on Wednesday following advice from police and health authorities.

Eighty per cent of people aged 16 and over have now received their first dose of vaccine, while 47.5 per cent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.

There are 1241 coronavirus patients admitted to hospital, with 234 in intensive care and108 requiring ventilation. Of the cases in ICU, 185 were not vaccinated.

NSW Health’s latest COVID-19 surveillance report revealed that 351 healthcare workers were infected with coronavirus in the outbreak to August 28, while 7 paramedics have been infected in the same period.

HSU NSW Secretary Gerard Hayes said the health system needed a “crystal clear position” on how to deal with workers who are not vaccinated by September 30.

“Will they be sacked, redeployed, or stood down?” he said.

In the email sent to WSLHD staff on Tuesday, chief executive Graeme Loy said 13,492 workers had been fully vaccinated, 796 had received a single dose, while 1979 are yet to receive a vaccination.

Western Sydney hospital workers are caring for 228 COVID-positive patients and more than 3700 patients with coronavirus in the community.

Dr Chant said she was confident NSW Health could work effectively with any staff members to encourage vaccine uptake, as with other mandatory vaccinations.

“[We] always takes a compassionate, thoughtful approach because we know that education and information is the best way to convert people”.

Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said school staff who had not received their second vaccination by the deadline without a valid exemption risked losing their job. “We will do all we can to help them avoid this outcome, but we have to put the safety of students and staff first.“

For hospitality workers and patrons, Ms Berejiklian said there would be no avoiding mandatory vaccination when the state starts to reopen at 70 per cent double dose vaccination.

“It will be the law that if you’re not vaccinated, you can’t attend those venues that are on our road map...and what people choose to do individually is on them, in terms of legal issues,” she said.

Ms Berejiklian said legal advice about how the government will enforce the law among hospitality workers and businesses was “dealt with through the national cabinet system” in line with the Doherty report.

The government is still reviewing whether businesses would be penalised for accepting unvaccinated customers.

“We are going through that compliance regime right now to give enough notice to businesses before they open...and it will depend on the size of the business. We know that many small businesses are doing it tough,” Ms Berejiklian said.

There were 46 new cases in Illawarra-Shoalhaven reported on Wednesday, 27 in the Hunter, 11 on the Central Coast, 10 in far west NSW, six in western NSW, seven in southern NSW and two in the Murrumbidgee district.