Significant Changes To New Zealand’s Covid-19 Response – What Does This Mean In The Workplace?

The Government has announced significant changes to its Covid-19 response, including to:

  1. Remove Vaccine Pass requirements for businesses from 11.59pm on Monday 4 April 2022;
  2. Remove its vaccine mandates for education, Police and Defence workers from 11.59pm on Monday 4 April 2022 (health, aged care, corrections and border workers will still be subject to Vaccine Mandates at this point);
  3. Remove outdoor gathering limits, and increase indoor gathering limits to 200 from 11.59pm this Friday, 25 March 2022 (however seated and separated rules will remain for hospitality); and
  4. From this weekend, the requirement to scan QR codes and the requirement for businesses to provide the mechanisms to do so will also be removed.

WHAT WILL THIS MEAN FOR WORKPLACES? 

Well, watch this space – we expect further commentary and communications on this point; however, our initial thoughts include:

Education Providers

Education providers will need to consider whether they wish to continue to apply vaccine mandates. If they do, it would likely be prudent to ensure there is a solid foundation of current risk assessments and consultation with employees, given the Government mandate will no longer apply.

Private Business, Employers & other public sectors

Private businesses, employers, and public service employers that were not subject to Government mandates will need to reconsider vaccine mandates and policies already introduced and/or updated.

Again, there will need to be a solid foundation of risk assessments and consultation with employees – this includes revisiting requirements and policies introduced during the Delta outbreak that may no longer stand up to challenge. For example, employers which based their vaccination mandates on the requirements set by client businesses (including those covered by Government mandates) may no longer have a reasonable foundation to continue the mandates without further risk assessments and consultation.

Making Permanent Changes in the Workplace

If making changes in the workplace, will employers consult and communicate them on the basis that they are permanent, or foreshadow further potential amendments/re-inclusion of restrictions in future depending on, for example, new variants? The latter seems more sensible, but will that give employees sufficient certainty, including if reintroducing unvaccinated workers to the workplace?

Employers should be turning their minds to questions like this.

Preparing Employees for Change

Both vaccinated and unvaccinated employees should prepare themselves for changes – but not expect them to happen tomorrow.

Employers will need to consider these changes carefully, and likely consult with vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, in relation to amending existing processes and requirements around vaccination.

Continued COVID-19 Protection Framework

While it appears restrictions are easing, masks will continue to be a critical method of preventing transmission and reducing the number of new Covid cases in New Zealand. So, it would be prudent for Employers to continue encouraging and maintaining the use of masks in the workplace, particularly indoor environments.

Remember, these changes do not automatically mean that existing policies and requirements (for non-Government mandated employers) will be unlawful. They do, however, change the context of such requirements in a way that suggests now is the time to revisit the decisions made over the last few months.  Likewise, employers’ previous decisions to terminate unvaccinated employees will not automatically be unjustified – the test of justification is based on the circumstances at the time decisions were made. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Our article does not constitute legal advice and we encourage affected businesses, employers and employees to seek out tailored advice. Please feel free to contact employment law expert Tess von Dadelszen on +64 04 472 0020. 

Contributing Advisors