Covid-19: Fears some firefighters will leave job if vaccine becomes mandatory

Emergency services are yet to find out whether the Covid-19 vaccine will become mandatory for all of their staff, but unions are worried it will force some to walk away.

The Government announced last week that everyone involved in “high-risk” work in the health and disability sector must have their first dose by October 30 and be fully vaccinated by December 1 – or they will lose their job.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson said some emergency services workers would fall under the healthcare worker mandate, which was still being drafted.

Details would be shared publicly once they were available, and other mandatory vaccination orders were still under consideration, they said.

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The New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union’s focus is to keep firefighters in jobs, national secretary Wattie Watson says.

New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union national secretary Wattie Watson said Fenz’s vaccination rate was currently confidential, so it was not known how many firefighters were yet to get vaccinated.

The union was asking members who were still unvaccinated to consider what mandatory vaccination “will mean for them in the workplace”.

“We do not support a mandated order … where it means a worker could lose their job because they’re not vaccinated. We want to protect workers.”

If the vaccine did become mandatory, she​ hoped unvaccinated firefighters could remain with Fenz in roles away from the frontline, though that would be difficult in small areas that had difficulty recruiting enough volunteers.

United Fire Brigades' Association of New Zealand chief executive Bill Butzbach says the union wants to support members who are yet to get the Covid vaccine.

United Fire Brigades’ Association chief executive Bill Butzbach said union members were “split on this issue”.

“They have their personal choice, which we respect.”

It was possible some firefighters would leave, “but we don’t know the size of the issue unless we surveyed everybody”, he said.

“I’m getting as many calls for the affirmative as the against.

“It’s not good or bad, it’s indicative of the split in society around this matter … my concern would be how we support members to work their way through this with support and advice.”

A Fire and Emergency New Zealand spokesperson said there was no evidence to suggest many firefighters would walk away from the job if vaccination became mandatory.

“Throughout the pandemic we have strongly encouraged our people to get vaccinated – it is another layer of protection for our personnel on top of the stringent protocols in place to keep our people and the community safe.

“We are awaiting confirmation of how Fire and Emergency personnel are included and are working closely with Ministry of Health. If Fire and Emergency personnel are included, we will assess the impacts on all parts of our organisation,” they said.

Police officers line up for a drive-through Covid-19 vaccine in Northland.

As of October 12, more than 81 per cent of front-line police staff had received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine and more than 68 per cent were fully vaccinated.

Police were continuing to review their health and safety policies, procedures and hygiene measures to “ensure our staff, as well as those they come into contact with as a result of their work, are kept as safe as possible”, a spokesperson said.

They would not comment on the possibility of mandatory vaccination.

Police Association president Chris Cahill said there did not seem to be significant resistance to the concept, and he had received only a couple of queries about it.

The association’s board supported the vaccine as the safest options for its members, and would support mandatory vaccination if it was legal. Currently, there was no legal authority to enforce it, he said.

St John people and organisational strategy deputy chief Emma Butler said the majority of the charity’s frontline staff were already vaccinated.

“We are awaiting the release of the Health Order to understand the impact of the Government’s mandatory vaccination announcement … and will support our people to comply with the requirements of the order,” she said.

“St John strongly recommends people receive the Covid-19 vaccination.”