Australia's COVID-19 vaccination roll-out begins

But the pressing question is can employers direct their staff to have the jab?

Australia's COVID-19 vaccination roll-out begins

Australia’s vaccination roll-out has begun today with border workers, frontline health staff and aged-care residents amongst the first in line.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed he will be getting the Pfizer vaccine along with his chief medical officer, while the NSW Premier and the health minister will have the AstraZeneca jab.

A number of vaccination hubs have been established across the country, including at Melbourne Airport where an international lounge has been transformed into a “state of the art” facility.

Victoria brought the start of its vaccinations forward after three new community cases linked to the Holiday Inn cluster were detected on Thursday.

Victoria’s minister for health and aged care said: “From Monday, we will start vaccinating those Victorians who are most at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

"When it comes to the hotel quarantine workers, port of entry workers, front line staff, these are the groups that are most likely to be at the forefront of that international-facing risk and they will be the ones in this first Commonwealth phase 1a, as they are calling it.”

Phase 1a is estimated to include 687,000 people nationwide, while phase 1b jumps to 6.1 million.

That round includes anyone over 70, other healthcare workers, young adults with underlying conditions, high-risk workers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people over 55.

Phase 2a includes those over 50, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged between 18-55 and other critical workers.

Read more: ‘Cautious optimism’: Early COVID-19 vaccine success sparks questions for HR

The rest of the population is included in Phase B and the government says it has “optimistic” hopes of vaccinating 80,000 people per week.

The vaccine is not mandatory but it has sparked discussion around whether certain industries may require workers to have the jab.

The NSW Premier has said she would welcome so-called “incentives” by private businesses to encourage staff and even suggested hospitality venues could require patrons to prove they had been vaccinated before entering.

Employment lawyers have reiterated that any directive made to staff needs to be “reasonable and lawful” to comply with workplace legislation.

Katie Amin, senior manager of HR at Skillsoft, APAC, said HRDs will need to tread carefully when it comes to the vaccine.

 “As the vaccine rollout begins, businesses have to balance the rights and wishes of their employees with ensuring a safe workplace for all employees,” she told HRD.

“Businesses may want to consider alternatives to vaccine mandates. For example, a robust education campaign, enhanced paid time off for the vaccination, and company leaders taking the vaccine first to demonstrate safety of the vaccine.

“Employees need to understand the reasons behind why you’re asking them to get a vaccine and what the alternatives are if they refuse.”

Read more: ‘Human error’: Worker receives five doses of COVID vaccine

Exploring alternatives, like the use of PPE or redeploying that staff member, is a vital part of the consultation process.

It’s unlikely a court would look favourably on an employer if it implemented a policy without first understanding the impact on employees and carrying out a thorough risk assessment.

Plus, some employees may not be able to have the vaccine for health reasons, and so any policy should include those types of factors.

"It is important to put processes in place so that if an employee does refuse the COVID-19 vaccine they understand what action will be taken and how their decision might impact their role,” Amin said.

“Ensure your team knows what these processes are by providing them with engaging health and safety training, so they understand the potential risks of COVID-19 and the measures they need to comply with to protect them and their colleagues.

 "Lastly, it is important to respect every individual and make decisions on a case-by-case basis. If an employee isn’t comfortable coming back to the office for example, it is important that employers can be flexible and adaptable to allow them to continue to work from home.”

While the Fair Work Ombudsman advises that there are only limited circumstances where employers could force their staff to get vaccinated, before they start work doesn’t seem to be one of them.

“In most circumstances, an employer may be able to require a prospective employee to be vaccinated against coronavirus,” the FWO guidance says.

However, it advises that employers “should first consider their obligations and responsibilities carefully - for example, under general protections or anti-discrimination laws - before requiring that a prospective employee be vaccinated before commencing employment”.

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