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Australian business groups lament ‘nightmare’ of states’ differing Covid vaccine mandates

·10-min read
<span>Photograph: Kumar Sriskandan/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Kumar Sriskandan/Alamy

Business groups are pushing for a uniform approach to Covid-19 vaccination mandates as states and territories forge ahead with their reopening roadmaps.

Council of Small Business Organisation Australia (COSBOA) CEO, Alexi Boyd, said a national standardised approach to vaccination mandates would offer the “clarity and certainty” small businesses had been lacking.

“We’re not independent countries. The knock-on effect is these differing mandates impact supply chains, logistics, permits, it’s a nightmare trying to figure out all the requirements for states on top of pre-existing worker shortages,” Boyd said.

“It restricts the ability to plan.” 

As Victoria pushes ahead with some of the toughest vaccination mandates in the world, New South Wales will reopen its economy to the unvaccinated from 1 December, with the same freedoms, bar international travel, to be enjoyed by the population regardless of vaccination status.

 Related: Melbourne celebrates end of lockdown amid concerns about rising Covid cases in young and regional Victorians 

But in Victoria, the “vaccinated economy” will continue, mandating the jab at non-essential retail and events and effectively banning the unvaccinated from attending or working in anything from a pub or a cinema to a football match until at least 2023.

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Boyd said “the devil would be in the detail” as to how Victoria’s extension of vaccine passports would work into next year.

“What we’ve learned is the process of mandating vaccines has had a significant impact on small businesses ability to plan for the future … practical things like rostering and logistics become complex,” Boyd said.

“We’ll need another regime for booster shots and proof of vaccinations around that. There’s so many variables to economic activity right now, time will tell us whether Victoria or NSW will have the most economically successful approach.”

Victorian head of employer association Ai Group, Tim Piper, said his members welcomed vaccination mandates as a safeguard for businesses, but a uniform approach would make “everything we do in life easier”.

“Not having one [uniform approach] could cause problems for those coming in from overseas, who might be vaccinated but have differing quarantine requirements when they move between states,” he said.

“People are going to have difficulty living normal life without being vaccinated, and I think getting the vaccine will be an inevitable conclusion they come to. But we’d like a standardised approach.

 Related: Vaccine requirements for children could hamper Australians returning from UK 

A small number of countries in Europe, as well as the UK and Canada have introduced proof of vaccination mandates for venues like bars, restaurants, cinemas and nightclubs, but just Micronesia and Turkmenistan have gone further than Victoria and introduced mandatory vaccinations for their entire adult populations.

Less than 8% of Micronesia’s population has been fully vaccinated, while in Turkmenistan, the figure is 68%.

The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, justified the extension of the vaccine passport system because the unvaccinated continued to be the largest burden on the health system, accounting for the majority of hospitalisations.

Seventy-five per cent of authorised workers are already required to be fully vaccinated in Victoria from 26 November, including some essential retail, construction, aged care and health. False or misleading vaccination status information incurs a possible $10,904 fine for individuals or $54,522 for an organisation.

The restrictions don’t apply to anyone with a valid medical exemption issued by an authorised medical practitioner or people aged under 16. Religious exemptions are only permitted for faith leaders “or in emergency and some critical unforeseen circumstances depending on the situation”.

Katie Attwell, a vaccination social scientist and policy expert from the University of Western Australia said states and territories were making policy decisions based on political factors and local experiences of the virus.

 Related: Covid-19 vaccine Australia rollout tracker by state: total number of people and per cent vaccinated, daily vaccine doses and rate of progress 

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“Governments will use mandates linked to workforces, it’s a matter of how quickly they mobilise and design it. All state instruments are going it alone to an extent, but also choosing what plays well politically,” she said.

Attwell said the demographic makeup in the ACT – with a high proportion of government workers – had allowed the chief minister, Andrew Barr, to withhold vaccination mandates because of the strong uptake in vaccines.

The ACT has never distinguished the vaccinated from the unvaccinated in its roadmap to reopening, citing enviable vaccination rates (the ACT is currently sitting above 99% first dose), as proof vaccination hesitancy isn’t an issue.

In NSW, Attwell said the reopening of its economy to the unvaccinated was in line with its historical favouring of high testing numbers and minimal economic restrictions over hard lockdowns.

“It’s possibly not coincidental that it’s a Liberal government vis-a-vis the way other states are moving with vaccination mandates in terms of a two track society,” she said.

Attwell said Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, who has recently introduced tough workplace vaccination mandates to 75% of the working population, was also playing to demographics.

“It’s potentially a necessity to get vaccination rates up, given the disease is not familiar, but introducing a workplace mandate rather than a vaccine passport also helps McGowan capitalise on the ‘west versus rest’ approach,” Attwell said.

“The leaders have to play for audiences at home politically. We’ve been a country split by significantly different experiences of the disease, which means policies that may work in one state wouldn’t in another.”

Victoria

Unvaccinated Victorians will remain shut off from non-essential retail and events well into 2022, under government health orders.

Only the fully vaccinated will be able to go to gyms, retail stores, theatres and other venues, locking the unvaccinated out of all but basic services.

The unvaccinated are also locked out of travel from “orange zones” interstate.

Queensland

Once Queensland passes 70% and 80% vaccination targets, unvaccinated Australians will be able to travel from interstate provided they haven’t been in a hotspot for the past 14 days, but additional public health restrictions will be in place.

Venues and events that require all patrons and staff to be vaccinated may be able to operate without public health restrictions, while those that allow unvaccinated people may be subject to capacity and density limits. Highly targeted lockdowns are also expected to be likelier in areas with lower vaccination rates.

At 90% targets, expected sometime after 17 December, unvaccinated travellers will “need to meet the relevant requirements for entry” and undertake a period of quarantine. Vaccinated travellers won’t have restrictions on entry or need to quarantine. Only the fully vaccinated will be able to arrive from overseas.

Work is “under way” to integrate vaccination certification with the Check-In Qld app.

Western Australia

Western Australia is yet to announce when the state will reopen to the rest of Australia, but has recently introduced the toughest workplace vaccination mandates in the country. McGowan will enforce a staged mandating of the vaccine to 75% of the working population. Just over 60% of eligible Western Australians are currently double dosed.

Northern Territory

The Northern Territory government has followed Victoria and NSW in mandating vaccination in a number of sectors. All workers in high-risk settings, essential workers and volunteers must have received a first vaccination dose by 12 November and be fully vaccinated by Christmas Eve.

Once the territory reopens at 80% vaccination, the unvaccinated will only be able to visit if they’re travelling from approved “green zones” – unless they’re an essential worker or returning traveller.

The unvaccinated may also be subject to “lockouts” in the instance of Covid-19 outbreaks. If there’s a positive case, the unvaccinated will only be allowed to leave home for five essential reasons, while the vaccinated will be able to remain active in the community provided they wear a mask.

There will be allowances made for people who cannot get vaccinated – like children under 12, and people who aren’t able to be vaccinated because they have evidence of a contraindication to all available vaccinations.

Tasmania

When Tasmania reopens to the rest of Australia at 90% fully vaccinated, expected about 15 December, interstate travellers over 12 will only be able to visit the state if they are fully vaccinated and receive a negative test within 72 hours of travel.

People who travel to Tasmania and don’t meet the criteria will be “subject to additional quarantine and testing requirements” unless they have a legitimate exemption.

The vaccine is currently mandatory for workers in healthcare settings and people who provide health and medical services in public and private hospitals.

South Australia

Under South Australia’s Covid-19 roadmap, border restrictions with the ACT, NSW and Victoria will ease on 23 November, however only for the fully vaccinated.

Quarantine requirements for international travellers will be removed once the state reaches 90% double-vaccination targets, expected to occur around Christmas. The quarantine-free travel will not apply to the unvaccinated.

Vaccinations are already mandatory among the aged care and health sectors, medi-hotel workers and airport workers in “red zones” and there are restrictions in place for unvaccinated interstate workers and border residents.

As of 18 October, all residents in the Victorian cross-border corridor must have received at least one dose of a vaccine to enter SA. Commercial transport and freight workers and essential travellers arriving by road from the ACT, NSW and Victoria must also have evidence of receiving at least one vaccination dose.

New South Wales

Under NSW vaccination requirements, a swathe of public-facing industries, education and frontline workers were required to be vaccinated by 11 October when the state began to reopen to fully vaccinated residents aged over 16.

Come 1 December, though, the unvaccinated in NSW will enjoy the same freedoms as fully vaccinated residents, bar international travel.

Proof of vaccination status will no longer be required under public health orders to enter venues and the unvaccinated will be able to head to the gym or the pool, see a show, get a haircut, visit aged care facilities or go out to dinner. Unvaccinated Sydneysiders will also be able to travel freely to and from regional NSW.

But they will remain shut off from international travel.

Australian Capital Territory

The ACT, unlike NSW or Victoria, has never distinguished the vaccinated from the unvaccinated in its roadmap to reopening.

Barr has cited the territory’s enviably high vaccination rates as justification for easing restrictions for the whole population rather than locking out the unvaccinated once “normal” life resumes.

With the exception of aged care, Barr has also been dismissive of vaccination mandates, which he has described as “largely a solution looking for a problem” in the ACT where there is “no issue with vaccination hesitancy”.

Unvaccinated Canberrans will be able to enjoy relative freedom at home into 2022, and will be able to travel to NSW. But they will remain shut off from international or the majority of interstate travel.

International travel

Under phase C of the commonwealth’s steps to resuming international travel, flights out of Australia will only reopen to fully vaccinated travellers.

For returning travellers, the unvaccinated will be able to return home provided they undertake 14-day managed quarantine, while vaccinated travellers will be able to undertake seven-day home quarantine.

Australian citizens and permanent residents who cannot be vaccinated will be treated as vaccinated for the purposes of their travel.

Once the changes come into effect in November, Australians will be able to travel subject to “any other travel advice and limits” as long as they’re fully vaccinated.

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