Matthew Hooton: Jacinda Ardern changes tack towards compulsory vaccination

OPINION:

Jacinda Ardern is now boldly leading New Zealand towards what amounts to compulsory vaccination for nearly all of us.

As recently as August, back when “elimination” remained the alleged strategy, the Prime Minister declared herself against Covid vaccination passports being used domestically.

Just over a month ago, Ardern continued to insist that there would be no consequences for those who choose not to be vaccinated.

With internal borders and checkpoints seemingly with us for quite a bit longer, how fast things are changing.

Late last week, the Prime Minister confirmed to the Herald that she was moving New Zealand towards a two-tier society, where the vaccinated will have significantly more freedoms and rights than the unvaccinated – a change in policy that has now been reported globally.

Today, the Prime Minister went further, announcing from the podium of truth that her Government will change the law so that 40 per cent of the workforce, and perhaps something closer to 100 per cent, could be required to be vaccinated.

Already, compulsory vaccination covers an estimated 15 per cent of the workforce including those working at the border, in the health sector and in schools.

Today’s announcement makes vaccination compulsory for employees in businesses whose customers are required to be vaccinated under the traffic light system. This includes the hospitality sector, hairdressers, beauty salons and gyms.

These announcements, covering another 25 per cent of the workforce, are no more than common sense. It would be absurd for a business to be legally required to check its customers are vaccinated yet not be required to employ only vaccinated employees.

More potentially contentious is the proposed “legal framework” for all other businesses. According to Beehive strategists, this framework will allow employers to make vaccination compulsory for all jobs with a public-facing component, or in any business that could be disrupted by a Covid outbreak among their workforce.

Exporters whose foreign customers require that everyone in their supply chain is vaccinated will also be able to make vaccination compulsory for their employees.

Work on the details will continue in consultation with the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) and Business NZ on the detail but, combined, these moves will surely cover pretty much every employer in New Zealand.

The new laws need to be in place before the traffic light system can become operable and vaccination passports issued. After some confusion this week, the Beehive has returned to insisting this will be before the end of November.

Legislation will need to be introduced to Parliament quickly so that a rushed Select Committee process can occur through next month.

The Government is promising that employees will be able to challenge employers’ decisions in the courts and the Prime Minister claims to be confident the new laws will not breach the Bill of Rights Act.

Like Labour, National’s position on these matters is also evolving. Until recent days, National appeared to be strongly in favour of vaccination passports, unvaccinated customers being required or able to be turned away, and employers able to require employees to be double-jabbed.

However, a rear-guard action has been fought by the party’s remaining libertarians and its increasingly powerful evangelical wing demanding vaccination be considered more of a choice. The anti-vaccination movement is well-organised, strident and noisy and National is not entirely deaf to it.

It makes little difference. Labour has the numbers to get the new laws through Parliament over the next few weeks, and will be more interested in what Business NZ has to say that whatever emerged from Judith Collins’ motley crew.

Act, the Greens and Te Paati Māori are also ultimately irrelevant. Ardern is focused on the median voter and the overwhelmingly majority who are already fully vaccinated and becoming increasingly enraged about being held hostage by those who are not.

Public opinion will be strongly with the Prime Minister today. Now, for her next move, look for major reform to the disgraceful and overwhelmed MIQ system, that allows increasing numbers of unvaccinated locals who are sick with Covid to isolate at home, while denying entry to New Zealand to hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders overseas who are both double vaccinated and testing negative to the disease.

These stranded people and their families are not just citizens but voters. And Ardern will not be able to justify how they are being treated for more than a few more weeks.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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