Is compulsory vaccination coming to Australian post-secondary education?

(the following opinion piece was written by Dr Don Perlgut, CEO of Community Colleges Australia)

Is compulsory vaccination coming to Australian post-secondary education – colleges, universities and the large (4.2 million students) vocational education and training sector? Yes, in some circumstances, given that it’s already here.

Sadly, it looks like we in Australia (and certainly those of us in New South Wales) may never achieve “COVID zero” again. So strategies to “live with COVID” (I use that phrase reluctantly) will need to be built on a solid foundation of extremely high vaccination rates, complemented by a set of complex management strategies.

Australia already has a significant list of medical vaccination mandates including: “The ‘no jab, no play’ policy removes entitlements and childcare subsidies from unvaccinated families; aged care and health workers are required to be protected from most diseases, including receiving annual influenza shots; arrivals in Australia have to hold an international vaccination certificate [in some circumstances]; and plumbers have to be up to date on their Hepatitis B vaccinations.” On 7 August, the NSW Government announced that construction workers from COVID-19 southwest Sydney “hotspots” could work if they meet certain vaccination conditions, which may set an interesting precedent for other industries. We are likely to see more calls for compulsory vaccination in coming months.

Australia’s move away from the AstraZeneca vaccine in October – with its extremely rare, but potentially dangerous side effects – to Pfizer, will mean that compulsory vaccination requirements are much easier to enforce.

Australia’s National Cabinet has already agreed that “COVID-19 vaccinations are to be mandated for residential aged care workers as a condition of working in an aged care facility through shared state, territory and Commonwealth authorities and compliance measures.” This includes “students on placement”, for whom COVID-19 vaccination will be mandatory, according to the Commonwealth Department of Health.

International COVID-19 Vaccination Mandates

Big news are the recent requirements for compulsory vaccination happening overseas: In the US, the Biden Administration has announced that it will require vaccination of all federal employees, or require masking, social distancing and testing of the unvaccinated. The Biden administration also plans to require all foreign travellers to the US to be vaccinated, and the list of companies requiring staff vaccinations is growing, including Cisco, Facebook, Google, American Airlines, Walmart and the Washington Post.

In France, “one of the most vaccine-hesitant countries in the world”, COVID-19 vaccinations are now mandatory for health workers as well as for “visitors heading to museums, cinemas or swimming pools, large-scale festivals, clubs, and soon restaurants, bars and long-distance train and plane journeys.” Italy will soon follow. British nightclubs and other venues with large crowds will require patrons to present proof of full vaccination from the end of September. Greece will soon allow only vaccinated customers indoors in bars, cinemas, theatres and other closed spaces. Other countries with mandates include Poland, Malta, Russia, Hungary, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Indonesia and Lebanon.

Israel – with one of the most successful vaccination roll-outs in the world, and now providing boosters to older residents – has decided that it’s still not enough: “As of 8 August, those who refuse vaccines will not be able to go to the cinema, the theatre, the synagogue, the amusement park, the soccer game or any activity with over 100 people, indoors or out, unless they bring negative results from a coronavirus test, at their expense,” announced Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. That announcement has resonated in Australia, with Janet Albrechtsen quoting the statement at length in The Australian.

Overseas Universities and Colleges Require Vaccination

Numerous American universities and colleges have made vaccinations mandatory for staff and students, with the approaching northern autumn semester. The latest count of US colleges and universities which require vaccinations runs more than 600, including Rutgers, the New Jersey state university; California State University, the country’s largest four-year public university system; the University of California; Los Angeles Community Colleges; Michigan State University; the University of Michigan; Dartmouth College; Harvard University; State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY); Community College of Philadelphia; and San Diego Community Colleges (home to Dr Ricky Shabazz, who visited Australia in 2017, as a guest of Community Colleges Australia).

Even in freedom-loving Britain, “university students will have to be fully vaccinated to attend lectures or stay in halls of residence under plans being pushed by Boris Johnson,” reports The Times. In Canada, a number of universities require vaccination, although mandates are subject to vigorous debate.

Australian Vaccination

Australia is fortunate in that our population hardcore “vaccine hesitancy” (or resistance) is dropping, sitting at 11%, according to the Essential Report, a figure that should allow Australia to reach its 80%-plus vaccination target. Much of the previous hesitancy is now being overcome because of the developing outbreaks in the eastern states. One Australian company – SPC foods – has mandated vaccinations for workers from November, which Qantas has also foreshadowed. This will inevitably grow as vaccines become more available and mandates are tested in courts and tribunals.

What can Australian Post-Secondary Institutions Do?

If your institution has not already begun planning its approach to “living with COVID-19”, it’s essential to start now. This means encouraging staff and students to get vaccinated as soon as possible – providing clear leadership like the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has done, along with education, consistent messaging along with credible messengers, time off and even financial incentives. Given that many Australian universities already provide on-campus flu shots, institutions should consider becoming vaccination hubs themselves for staff, students – and their local communities, especially if there is limited local access.

For educational institutions, it’s not just vaccination: preparing for the future through modifications to classrooms and training environments will be essential, with improved ventilation. Strong promotion of better ventilation – to prevent both COVID spread, as well as all other respiratory illnesses – is now being made by the NSW Government, Safework Australia, the US CDC, the US Department of Education, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA). The US Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security estimates an expenditure of about US$6,000 per school classroom “for upgrades to relatively modern systems that are not fully up to code” and US$30,000 for older classrooms, for installing or improving heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

In June, Community Colleges Australia announced its support for a national COVID-19 vaccination awareness campaign, in a statement that notes, “vaccination is one of Australia’s top national priorities, to ensure the health and future prosperity of the nation.” Recent events have only underlined this importance: “We are in the middle of our biggest emergency since the Second World War and we need to make sure that all the resources of Australia are brought to bear to meet the crisis,” said Tony Shepherd, a director of Virgin Australia and Snowy Hydro, earlier today.

(This article was reprinted by Campus Review on 13 August 2021.)

Author Note

Dr Don Perlgut, CEO of Community Colleges Australia, wishes to point out that he is (a) fully vaccinated with AstraZeneca; and (b) holds a PhD in media, and is not a medical doctor.

Appendix: Additional Coverage

The higher education and mandatory vaccination debate has continued since this article was originally published on 9 August, with selected links below:

Deakin University Vice Chancellor Iain Martin - who favours mandatory vaccination -  "has called on Australia’s universities to seek a united position on whether vaccination against Covid-19 should be mandated for employees and students," according to The Australian. “The debate is really important and ... the time was right now because of the heightened awareness of what’s happening in Sydney and Melbourne at the moment,” he said. Universities Australia chief executive officer Catriona Jackson said while vaccination was the pathway to recovery from the pandemic, “exactly how best to continue to ensure the safety of students, staff and the wider community is an operational decision for each individual university and one we know is being considered very carefully.” (11 August)

"Could a France-style vaccine mandate for public spaces work in Australia? Legally, yes, but it’s complicated," writes Katie Attwell and Marco Rizzi in The Conversation.

"Vaccine passports are a better tool than mandating jabs for all jobs," writes Michelle Grattan in The Conversation. "When people are dealing with the vulnerable – most obviously in aged care – the rights of those being cared for clearly come ahead of the workers’ right to choose," she writes. “We aren’t ready, as a society, for the arrival of vaccine passports. But unless the current outbreak is brought under control soon, we may have no choice,” writes John Quiggin in Inside Story.

Duty of Care: "The primary duty of care under the Model Work Health and Safety Bill, agreed by federal and state governments ... says employers must ensure the health and safety of workers. They also have to ensure it for others in the workplace. That is, the customers. Section 19 of the law says employers have to make sure staff are 'monitored for the purpose of preventing illness' from the conduct of the business. Could that mean asking workers if they are vaccinated? Employer groups think so, but they are wary of leaping ahead while the political leaders shuffle their feet," writes David Crowe in the Sydney Morning Herald. ["What vaccination duty of care do post-secondary education institutions owe their staff and their customers, the students?" asks Don Perlgut.]

Australia’s CEOs rule out mandatory vax policies, for now, reports the SMH. They are, however, "united in their push to encourage staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19." They have been watching companies overseas who have banned unvaccinated staff from entering the office, including "tech giants including Google and Facebook ... along with a string of US companies including Walmart and United Airlines." CBA chief executive Matt Comyn reported on a staff survey that showed "89% of the bank’s 11,000 employees would voluntarily get the jab, with 7% unsure and 4% saying they did not intend to get vaccinated."

Vaccine hesitancy consistently low in Australia: Both the Essential poll - noted above - as well as last week's Newspoll [$] show that only 11% of adult Australian voters say they will flatly refuse to get jabbed. This compares to "between 14% and 26% of Americans [who] say ... they will not be vaccinated" (NPR, 30 July). By contrast, only 4% of adults in the United Kingdom report vaccine hesitancy, according to the UK National Office for Statistics (9 August).

NSW mandates COVID-19 vaccine for healthcare, childcare, disability support and other essential workers: "Childcare workers and disability support workers who live or work in the NSW LGAs of concern must have their first vaccination dose by 30 August" (20 August).

COVID-19 Vaccinations and the Workplace Employer Guide (PDF), from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) and AuSAE, to “help you and your business navigate the Australian COVID-19 vaccine rollout in an ever-changing landscape.”

Everything you need to know about mandatory vaccinations in Australia, from Smart Company (12 August).

Data updates: The Sydney Morning Herald COVID-19 vaccine tracker shows up-to-date data on both Australia and the world.

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