Is 'no jab, no job' a breach of human rights? Insurance provider weighs in

Is 'no jab, no job' a breach of human rights? Insurance provider weighs in | Insurance Business New Zealand

Is 'no jab, no job' a breach of human rights? Insurance provider weighs in

New Zealand has hit a significant milestone in its vaccination rollout, with 90% of the eligible population having now received its first dose. However, while aspects of the rollout are causing controversy, one insurance provider says that the consequences of having high numbers of unvaccinated people are higher than most people realise.

A hotly debated topic over the past several weeks has been around the government’s vaccine mandates, which require workers in the health and disability, education and corrections to be vaccinated, or face losing their jobs. The mandate has also since been expanded to those working in ‘close contact’ jobs such as gyms, hair salons and hospitality, and it now covers approximately 40% of New Zealand’s workforce.

Other employers have been largely left to make their own policies, though some insurers, such as IAG, have already rolled out mandatory vaccination for office-based staff.

According to Medicus, a membership organisation which provides professional indemnity insurance for health professionals, healthcare employers have already been having some difficult conversations with employees, and as the vaccination deadlines draw closer, they are likely to face some tough decisions.

“In every walk of life, there are people who hold different views from others, even if they are competent professionals,” Medicus chairman Dr Richard Stubbs told Insurance Business.

“We have small groups within the medical, nursing and midwifery professions who are objecting to receipt of this particular vaccine - or indeed, sometimes all vaccines. Fortunately, the mandate has made it quite straightforward in that all health professionals must have one vaccination by November 15, and two vaccinations by January 01.”

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“That mandate was issued in order to protect the health service and all those within it, and to protect all the people that health professionals come into contact with,” he explained.

“It is a public health measure, and those professionals are right at the heart of public health in New Zealand, so it’s very important to protect them as best we can. Those who have chosen not to be vaccinated by these dates will be excluded from work premises.”

“Discussions will already have taken place, and some reallocation of non-contact roles may have been achieved - but that’s not possible for most,” he said.

“They will find themselves on leave without pay, and if this was to go on for any length of time, I imagine their employment will be terminated.”

When it comes to the vaccine mandates, one of the biggest questions being asked around the world is “isn’t this a breach of human rights?”

The need to balance rights and freedoms in a COVID environment will no doubt remain a complex issue. In a recent High Court case, Justice Churchman noted that COVID-19 measures had been “extraordinary, and have placed significant restrictions on New Zealanders’ human rights” - however, under section 5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, there are times when limiting these freedoms can be justified. He concluded that protecting the right to health falls under this category.

Dr Stubbs highlighted that the right to health is protected under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which New Zealand is a State party. This then requires countries and governments to take reasonable steps to protect public health, particularly in the context of a pandemic.

“This matter has now been tested in the courts, and at least three judgements have been given with respect to health workers, border workers and others,” Dr Stubbs said.

“Each one of those have found that the mandate is not to be regarded as a breach of human rights, because of provisions that require governments to keep their people safe.”

“There is this conflict between what people think are human rights, and health and safety measures - but there are international agreements that require countries and governments to keep their people safe, particularly in the midst of a pandemic,” he explained.

“That’s all that has been invoked here really, and while it may appear to be at odds with human rights, there are clauses within the legislation that allow such courses to be taken. That’s what the court has found on these three occasions.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t be future court actions, but it seems unlikely that they will be successful.”

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Ultimately, the question of how to balance freedoms with the public good requires debate, and will be debated for some time - but when it comes to the practical reality of having large numbers of unvaccinated people, Dr Stubbs said that the consequences extend beyond just an overwhelmed public health system.

He highlighted figures from the United Kingdom’s NHS, which showed a dramatic drop in the number of elective procedures being performed - and while numbers have since picked up, they are still nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.

He said that while New Zealand had not yet fully experienced this kind of impact, vaccination was key to ensuring that we never have to deal with the issues that health system pressures have caused overseas.

“We talk about an overwhelmed health service, but it also means that most of the care that a hospital normally offers is put on hold,” Dr Stubbs said.

“This is nowhere more clear than it has been in the UK - prior to the COVID pandemic, the NHS was treating about 700,000 elective procedures per month. After COVID, that dropped sharply to 200,000, and it still hasn’t returned to its previous level.”

“There are about 5.7 million people on waiting lists, and that’s growing by around 200,000 a month even now,” he said.

“That means that there is going to be a generation of people who don’t get their hip replacements, don’t get their cataracts done, don’t get their cancers diagnosed in a timely way, and miss out on all the other aspects of healthcare that we normally expect. They miss out on that because the hospitals are so preoccupied with COVID.

“That’s a very sobering thought, and we’ve begun to talk just a little about how many procedures have already been cancelled at Auckland hospitals.”

“We’ve now got 80 beds taken out for COVID patients, and they’re not taken out for an average of one or two days - it’s usually one or two weeks, or sometimes longer,” he concluded.

“That’s a big problem. The government knows this, and this is one of the biggest reasons behind the mandate.”