Covid-19 coronavirus: Many port workers missing out on vaccine, union boss says

Port workers should be given subsidised breaks to ensure they get the Covid-19 shot, as access is proving a bigger issue than refusals, the Maritime Union’s boss says.

Many high-risk port staff like stevedores and marine technicians have been eligible to receive the vaccine since February, when a roll-out targeting border workers began.

But several months on, Maritime Union national secretary Craig Harrison said he was aware of employees who hadn’t been vaccinated simply because it would have meant missing work.

Harrison cited one example of some workers who were lined up to be vaccinated in Timaru, but couldn’t make the appointment set by the local district health as they’d been rostered to be in Port Chalmers that day.

“They can’t turn the work down because they don’t get paid – so they go to Port Chalmers and they miss the vaccine.”

Harrison said there had been issues with some workers refusing to be vaccinated, as they were allowed to, but said access had proven the bigger problem – and the union had taken the matter up with the Government.

“Why don’t they run a campaign where they actually pay the stevedores to come in for four of five hours to get vaccinated, because that’d be great.”

Under the Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order, which just came into force, the vaccination is a mandatory requirement for anyone working in managed Isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities, and for all government workers in high-risk border roles.

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment figures provided to RNZ showed that, as at May 4, 97.5 per cent of nearly 5000 MIQ workers had received the shot.

Among 127 outstanding staff, 13 faced being fired, and another 15 had been “stood down” while their employers assessed whether they could be re-assigned.

At least nine customs workers have also been fired for refusing the shot.

While non-government workers like stevedores aren’t covered by the regulations, officials are considering whether the order should be expanded.

Otago University epidemiologist Professor Nick Wilson felt that, while vaccination shouldn’t be made mandatory among port workers, the sea border still posed a Covid-19 risk.

That had been illustrated by a marine engineer who likely contracted the virus while working on a cargo ship docked in Auckland, and a crew member on another ship in Tauranga who was found to have been previously infected.

“There have now been a range of situations around the world where there’s been port-related transmission – including here,” he said.

“This is a real phenomenon – and it can often be explained by the fact that crews sometimes are replaced by those flown in from around the world.”

The Government moved to minimise the threat through the Maritime Border Order (MBO), requiring that crew arriving on ships must quarantine for a certain period of time.

Those working near them need to wear PPE, be tested each week to 14 days depending on their role, and have no contact with ship crew within two metres.

It wasn’t clear how many of these port workers have received vaccinations, as the information is confidentially held by the Ministry of Health.

A spokesperson for the Port of Tauranga said almost all of the company’s employees who were regularly tested had received their vaccinations.

But they couldn’t speak for more than 6000 others who regularly visited the site and were employed by a wide range of port user companies.

The spokesperson said there was a “low likelihood” of receiving Covid-19 infected crew, as most had been at sea for at least 21 days and on board for up to 12 months.

“Shore leave is not permitted without a negative Covid-19 test and permission from the local Medical Officer of Health.”

Lyttleton Port Company’s general manager of people safety, Kirstie Gardener, said 85 per cent of its frontline staff have been vaccinated so far, including 100 per cent of high-risk roles.

“We have facilitated vaccinations for all of our frontline staff via the Canterbury District Health Board, and we continue to strongly advocate to staff that they get vaccinated,” she said.

“We cannot force them to be vaccinated.”

Ports of Auckland and Wellington’s Centreport told the Herald all staff subject to testing requirements had been offered vaccination, which the companies had also encouraged.

A Ministry of Transport spokesperson said the ministry’s chief executive had been holding regular talks with industry representatives and unions about Covid-19.

“As part of these meetings, discussions have been held on the Government’s requirements and recommendations for managing the risk to public health from Covid-19 at the maritime border.”

Harrison, however, saw an urgent need to get the vaccine to those port workers who hadn’t been able to get it.

“They’re champing at the bit to get it, because they don’t want to contract the disease and take it home to their families,” he said.

“No one wants that.”

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