Updated Oct 26, 2021 - Health

Prime minister flags vaccine mandate for 40% of New Zealand workforce

  Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a COVID-19 briefing on October 20.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during an October COVID-19 briefing in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo: Robert Kitchin - Pool/Getty Images

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for businesses, as the government pushes to reach a nationwide 90% vaccination target.

Why it matters: Under the new COVID-19 Protection Framework, businesses must require vaccine certificates from customers if they're in close contact with them. Ardern said at a briefing Tuesday that such venues wishing to operate, including hair salons, bars, restaurants and gyms, must ensure staff is vaccinated.

  • Unlike in the U.S., there are no religious exemptions. Fewer than 100 people in the population of 5 million are estimated to qualify as medically exempt from the Pfizer vaccine, currently the only brand offered in New Zealand.
  • The mandate affects about 40% of New Zealand's workforce, workplace relations minister Michael Wood said at the briefing.

Of note: NZ is phasing out its pandemic elimination strategy, which proved successful before the arrival of the Delta variant in August.

  • Auckland, New Zealand's most populous city and the center of the current outbreak, has been under lockdown restrictions since then.
  • It's due to exit lockdown and switch to the highest setting of a new "traffic light" system once all three of Auckland's District Health Boards have fully vaccinated 90% of the eligible population of residents over 12, expected by the end of November.

By the numbers: New Zealand's outbreak has grown to 1,209 active community cases as of Tuesday, the vast majority in Auckland.

  • 28 people have died from the virus since the pandemic began.

The big picture: Auckland and COVID-19-affected parts of the Waikato region are under level 3 of NZ's four-tier restrictions, set under the elimination strategy. Nonessential businesses that have close contact with customers remain closed.

  • They're operating in the rest of the country under level 2 restrictions, with venue capacities capped.
  • Auckland is set to become the first region to experience the traffic light system, which enables businesses to operate under vaccine mandates — entering in the red setting. Other regions can join once they hit the 90% vaccination target.

What she's saying: "With the new traffic light system, businesses we previously treated as high risk like hospitality, hairdressers and gyms can operate at all levels if they ask customers for a vaccine certificate," Ardern said at the briefing of the threat these venues posed to the spread of the virus.

"If customers must be vaccinated, then so too must the workers."
— Ardern

Threat level: COVID-19 modeler Michael Plank, of New Zealand's University of Canterbury, said in a statement after the traffic light system was announced last week that the "red" setting "may not be enough to control a large outbreak that was threatening health care systems."

  • He recommended the government keep some of the stricter measures from the elimination strategy, such as localized lockdowns.
  • Māori and Pacific Islander leaders and health experts have expressed concern at the disproportionate effects of the pandemic among these populations.

Between the lines: Vaccination rates of Māori and Pacific Islanders have been lower than the general population.

  • Rhys Jones, a lecturer in Māori Health at the University of Auckland, expressed concern in a statement that the vaccine had been rolled out to "systematically privileged non-Māori, non-Pacific populations," putting indigenous Māori in particular at risk.
  • They've been let down by successive governments and faced systemic barriers in NZ's health system for decades. Consequently, there's been a distrust of governments.

Yes, but: These populations are younger, so vaccination rates have been rising as the rollout continues.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from Jones and further context.

Go deeper