Mandatory jabs being considered for Victorian construction workers

Mandatory jabs being considered for Victorian construction workers

09/13/2021

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The Victorian government is considering mandating vaccinations for construction workers after building sites emerged as coronavirus hotspots.

Victorian Treasurer and Industrial Relations Minister Tim Pallas issued a stern warning to the sector on Monday, saying its permitted worker status was not guaranteed, following reports of people working maskless or dropping their guard on meal or drink breaks.

The Victorian government is actively considering mandating COVID-19 vaccination for the construction industry. Credit:Rhett Wyman

“We’ll do everything that we can to ensure that the construction industry can continue in a COVID-safe way, but I have to say this … employers, unions are on notice. We’ve had significant transmission on building sites, and we simply can’t afford not to act if that continues to grow,” Mr Pallas said.

The state government will open 20,000 priority Pfizer and unlimited AstraZeneca bookings for the state’s 320,000 construction workers over the coming week and send teams of officials to crack down on compliance with public-health rules at worksites.

One senior government source and an industry source told The Age the government was also considering making COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for the construction sector, given the high-risk nature of the industry.

“There’s every chance it’ll be made mandatory,” said the state government source, who was not authorised to comment on the issue publicly. “A decision hasn’t been made yet, but we’re actively considering it right now.”

The mandate could come into effect as early as next week if the government presses ahead with its plan, according to industry sources.

Construction could be one of a number of sectors where vaccination will become mandatory, after Premier Daniel Andrews on Sunday flagged the government was working on a plan to enforce COVID-19 inoculation in certain industries.

If it commits to the plan, Victoria would become the first jurisdiction in the country to make COVID-19 immunisation compulsory for construction workers.

Aged care is the only sector where vaccination is mandatory, following a national cabinet decision that will come into play at the end of the week. NSW has mandated all teachers be vaccinated by November 8.

However, any move to mandate vaccines for the construction industry is likely to inflame the sector and draw the ire of the 30,000-member construction union, which has consistently advocated “individual choice regarding vaccination”.

Coronavirus cases on building sites are proving problematic because people often work at multiple locations and travel longer distances from home to work, meaning the virus was spreading further around Melbourne and, in some cases, into the regions.

The workforce is likely to be younger and was “disproportionately” from Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs, the epicentre of Victoria’s current COVID-19 outbreak.

Based on the data, the Department of Health has identified VCE students, construction workers, and residents in the city’s north and west as being most at risk of contracting and transmitting the virus, according to Health Minister Martin Foley.

More than 450 of Victoria’s 3500 active cases are linked to construction sites, including the state’s largest cluster of 134 cases stemming from a construction site in Box Hill.

Mr Pallas said: “The nature of this workforce means we have to go above and beyond the requirements for normal COVID compliance.”

“So this is not about special provision and exceptions for the construction industry, it’s about recognising they have an obligation to go that little bit further given the opportunities they have as permitted workers.”

Victoria’s Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union said in a statement to its members last week that it was aware of reports some employers would make COVID-19 vaccinations a condition of employment and requesting proof of vaccination, but that it supported people’s individual choice.

“If you are stood down or refused work based on your personal choice toward vaccination, we will represent you within the confines of the law,” the union wrote. “The CFMEU has consistently stated that we believe in individual choice regarding vaccination.”

Victoria reported 473 coronavirus cases on Monday, the highest daily number reported since August last year at the height of the state’s second wave.

The outbreak continues to take hold in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, where 71 per cent of the cases were reported in suburbs including Craigieburn, Roxburgh Park, Meadow Heights, Broadmeadows and Glenroy. A three-week vaccine blitz began in Melbourne’s west and north on Monday.

There are 157 people hospitalised in Victoria with coronavirus, an increase of 65 people since last week. None of those hospitalised are fully vaccinated.

On Sunday, the Premier indicated the government could consider making it mandatory for people working in a wide range of sectors to get vaccinated.

“Making it mandatory in a number of areas is very important. It won’t just be schools, it won’t just be teachers, it won’t just be nurses – it will be a whole range of different people because we think it’s [important]. I will make those announcements when I’m ready,” Mr Andrews said.

A fortnight ago, the Premier announced a slight easing of restrictions for the construction sector when the state hits its first vaccination milestone of 70 per cent of the eligible population with one jab – expected within the next week.

Half the workforce will be allowed to return to building sites if 90 per cent of staff have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. It remains unclear what proportion of the industry is already vaccinated.

Victorian executive director of the Property Council of Australia Danni Hunter said the industry would look to the government to make decisions around mandatory vaccination.

“We stand ready to work with the government on a road map to getting our industry reaching the first-dose vaccination targets,” Ms Hunter said.

Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Paul Guerra welcomed the state government’s decision to prioritise the construction sector for vaccines, but said the focus should also be on hospitality, retail, early learning educators and teachers.

“The Victorian chamber is also advocating for greater clarity on how the 90 per cent vaccination rate for construction workers will be documented and communicated when those levels become mandated and how that could service as a pilot for other industries,” he said.

“Business is looking for immediate clarity, certainty and guidance on the issues of mandatory vaccination rates and vaccination as a condition of entry, and these should be contained in the state’s road map out of lockdown.”

In a joint statement, Master Builders Victoria and the Property Council said they had been advocating for the government to prioritise the construction industry for vaccinations and described it as a “vital” step in keeping the sector open and safe.

Master Builders Victoria chief executive Rebecca Casson said: “The recent outbreaks underscore the importance of everyone in the building and construction sector continuing to follow COVIDSafe protocols to keep sites safe and operating.”

“Everyone employed in the building and construction industry must take this warning very seriously, otherwise our sector’s permitted worker status will be at risk.”

Victoria’s third wave continues to be a pandemic of the unvaccinated. More than 1100 of Victoria’s active cases are children or teenagers. On Monday, all Victorian children aged 12 to 15 became eligible to have a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

Victorian COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar said tearooms had emerged as hotspots in the building industry and other essential workplaces.

“Please, tearooms are not safe places. In fact, for many of us at work they are probably now the most dangerous place,” he said.

Epidemiologist Adrian Esterman said Victoria’s daily case numbers had been doubling about every six days and showed no sign of slowing in the short term.

Professor Esterman said it was fairly clear that NSW’s numbers were close to peaking.

“But in Victoria I see no sign of that,” he said, adding that he did not anticipate case numbers to flatten within the next two or three weeks, as others had said could be possible if vaccination rates continued to rise.

“Soon you’re getting into numbers where your contact tracers are struggling and hospitals are struggling.”

On Monday, it also emerged that almost half the people who had been counted in Victoria’s Indigenous vaccination rate were incorrectly identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

A number of regional GPs unwittingly incorrectly identified that many people who had received a COVID-19 jab were Indigenous.

The Victorian Department of Health believes the anomaly was due to software used by some GPs to upload immunisation data to the Australian Immunisation Register. The company, which the department did not identify, has updated its software to rectify the problem.

The federal government released data last week showing 48,000 First Nations Victorians had received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 31,000 were fully vaccinated. That number has been revised down to 21,559 and 12,200, respectively.

According to the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data, 47,787 Victorians identify as Indigenous.

Victoria had been considered the nation’s Indigenous vaccination success story, with the rate of fully vaccinated (43 per cent) believed to be almost double that of the broader Victorian population (26 per cent) and far exceeding the proportion of indigenous people in NSW (less than 11 per cent) and WA (6 per cent).

Victorian Aboriginal Health Service chief executive Michael Graham said his staff had for weeks suspected the original vaccination figures were not right.

He said he hoped the revised figures would make authorities realise they needed to do more to get Victoria’s Indigenous people vaccinated.

“Because our data looks so good across the state, I think people have gone, ‘Yeah, we don’t need to worry about Victoria because they’re doing so well’,” he said.

“Well, now you can see, we’re not that much different from the rest of the country.”

A federal Health Department spokesman said the total number of vaccinations delivered in Victoria was accurate, and that the correction was only limited to a person’s Indigenous status.

With Cassandra Morgan

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