New Zealand’s customs agency has fired nine border workers who refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The country has required all frontline border workers to be vaccinated by the end of last month.
In February, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the government would not be making the vaccine compulsory for frontline staff and that those who declined the vaccine would be moved into backroom roles.
However, no other work could be found to redeploy the nine workers who were in fixed-term employment at the maritime border, said Jacinda Funnell, New Zealand Customs Service deputy chief executive for people and capability.
“We regret that these individuals have had to leave employment, and understand what a difficult situation this is for them,” Funnell said in a statement.
About 95 percent of customs’ frontline staff who were required to be vaccinated had received their first dose and 85 percent had received the second dose of the vaccine, she said.
Customs had been discussing options with staff since the beginning of March, she said, and had told them that “options for redeployment were very limited, due to no other customs functions existing in the area.”
She said the agency had also explored redeployment options across the wider public service.
A New Zealand Ministry of Health order made under the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act has made it a legal requirement for anyone working in high-risk border environments to be vaccinated by the Saturday deadline.
Last Month, the New Zealand Defence Force threatened to fire service members who refused to get a COVID-19 vaccination.
In correspondence to staff published by Radio New Zealand, New Zealand Defence Force Chief Air Marshal Kevin Short said: “Electing to not meet the baseline immunization readiness criteria will result in a review of an individual’s future service.”
New Zealand’s unions have spoken out against mandatory vaccination.
E tu union has said: “We do not support mandatory vaccination and will not tolerate discrimination against workers who choose not to vaccinate.”
The Public Service Association union has said unvaccinated border staff “should be redeployed, and their employment rights must be protected.”
In related news, New Zealand is to open a travel bubble with the tiny Cook Islands this month, adopting quarantine-free arrangements similar to those already established with Australia, Ardern said.
The bubble with the South Pacific island state of about 20,000 people would open on May 17 and initially involve about three flights a week, Ardern said.
“Two-way quarantine-free travel is a significant step in both countries’ COVID-19 recovery, and a direct result of both New Zealand and the Cook Islands’ successful response to the pandemic,” she said.
The remote Cook Islands is one of few places in the world to remain coronavirus-free, while New Zealand has eliminated community transmission and recorded only 25 deaths in a population of 5 million.
The Cook Islands is self-governing in “free association” with New Zealand, meaning that while it administers its own affairs, Cook Islanders are both New Zealand citizens and Cook Islands nationals.
As a result, there are more expatriate Cook Islanders living in New Zealand than on the islands.
“[The bubble] will mean families can reconnect, commercial arrangements can resume and Kiwis can take a much-welcomed winter break and support the Cook Islands’ tourism sector and recovery,” Ardern said.
A long-awaited travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia opened last month, and has been hailed as a major milestone in restarting the global travel industry.
New Zealand opposition leader Judith Collins said Wellington should prioritize opening travel bubbles with Tonga and Samoa, two Pacific island nations that have detected no community cases of COVID-19.
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