Australia has time to get mandatory vaccine policies right for workplaces — but the politics may turn toxic

scott morrison vaccine

Source: AAP/David Caird.

Courtesy of Scott Morrison’s disastrous rollout, it’s premature to discuss vaccination mandates outside very specific requirements. But it’s an issue that will require careful consideration by governments and employers from late in the year when Australia finally starts to catch up with most other advanced economies in vaccinating a substantial proportion of its population.

So far no one seems to have had a problem with a mandate for aged care workers to be vaccinated — except that the government hasn’t been able to come even close to vaccinating all of them, despite promising to do so by the end of March. Health care unions have been vocal in their support for the aged care mandate, reserving their criticism for the government’s failure to make vaccines available.

The same mandate logic will eventually apply — once enough vaccines are actually available — to healthcare workers, who spend their working day around the ill, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. The rollout by state governments to frontline healthcare workers was far more successful than the Commonwealth’s debacle; the question will be whether governments impose a mandate to ensure uniformity across medical workplaces or leave it to individual service providers.

But the problems start mounting rapidly once you move out of workplaces where vaccination is a key safety tool for protecting the vulnerable and into the kinds of workplaces most of us work in or for.

A vaccine mandate (with appropriate medical exemptions) for an ordinary workplace — an office, a shop, a building site, a factory — is about lowering the risk to work colleagues, rather than especially vulnerable groups. For many employers — especially those eager to have staff back in the office rather than working from home — mandating a vaccination will be highly attractive. We already accept a range of restrictions on our behaviour in the workplace, and often extensive regulation around clothing and protective equipment to meet workplace safety requirements. But a vaccination is something altogether more invasive.

In the US, where the debate is necessarily far more advanced, divisions are already apparent. Some healthcare workers are suing healthcare employers over vaccination mandates. Trade unions are divided over likely Biden administration plans to extend the new Department of Veterans’ Affairs vaccine-or-be-regularly-tested mandate across the whole federal government. That’s before you get to the growing divide between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

We’re likely to see arguments here that mandating vaccinations for ordinary workplaces is overreach, while employer groups call for certainty from government. Whether unions join in by undertaking cases on behalf of workers objecting to being required to be vaccinated might be a deciding factor: the Transport Workers Union, for example, has single-handedly changed the employment landscape for gig economy workers with a series of cases against major companies on behalf of workers.

Given the slow rollout, the government has some months yet to work out what its position on workplace mandates will be. But it had plenty of time to get the rollout right, and quarantine right, and it botched both of those. It still doesn’t have a position on issues like the employment status of gig economy workers years on from the first cases being brought.

Beyond workplace mandates — mandating vaccinations not just in workplaces but as a condition of participating in society in various ways — it gets nasty politically. We already have vaccination requirements relating to access to childcare subsidies and income support, introduced by the current government, but they are aimed at wingnuts who endanger their children by refusing to vaccinate them. Imposing such requirements on people making decisions about their own health is quite different.

A more general mandate for both government and private services is already an obsession of right-wingers and the horse-punching freedom brigade, including the troglodytes of Sky News. There’s a long history on the right of objections to governments requiring things to go into bodies (although the argument that it’s all about choice strangely hasn’t extended to support for abortion). Now that has fused with the disease-is-beautiful-and-natural-Big-Pharma-is-evil delusions found on the left to produce warnings of police issuing Nazi-style demands for vaccination papers, please.

And in the US — of course — there are already laws from a number of Republican-controlled legislatures banning the private imposition of vaccine passports, such as businesses requiring vaccination as a condition of providing services.

But there’ll also be pressure from the rest of the community to impose mandates so that something like a pre-pandemic normal can return. Who’ll want to sit next to an unvaccinated person on a plane? Eat at a restaurant next to one? Who wants to face lockdown because a spike in COVID cases has sprung from a third of people being unwilling to get a jab?

Health workplaces — not much of a problem. Other workplaces — more of a problem. Everywhere else — very nasty. It will require leadership and good communication from both the federal and state governments. Good luck with finding that in Canberra.

This article was first published by Crikey

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