Mike Lee looks at the role businesses can play to help increase vaccination rates, and operate in a way that keeps their staff, livelihood, and other customers “free from harm”

In part one of my two-part perspective, I compared a choice to not get vaccinated to drunk driving and deliberately swimming outside of the flags. In this second part I will outline action plans businesses can implement right now to encourage the nation to get vaccinated.

Air New Zealand has taken the first step to legitimising the vaccine passport or certificate for international travel to and from New Zealand.

This is a great step and the right thing to do. Since the airline industry is one of the most internationally standardised sectors in the world, it should come as no surprise that they are the leading players in the rollout of the vaccination passport. 

However, the problem is that some anti-vaxxers will not be in the target market for international travel. Therefore, a vaccine passport will not be an incentive for them to get vaccinated.

New Zealand is currently still in the vaccine rollout phase, and work is being done to ensure that vaccination is accessible to all including using mobile clinics, home visits, Shot Bro buses, special cultural vaccination drives, etc.

Once we hit 85 percent, we will start to see a plateau in vaccination rates. In a previous talk on anti-vaccination and vaccine hesitancy I outlined the main reason for vaccine hesitancy and admitted that convincing ideological anti-vaxxers to take a vaccine is near impossible. But I also point out that there are degrees of vaccine hesitancy with truly hard core anti-vaxxers being only a small, vocal minority.

The reality is most of the vaccine hesitant are reasonable people suffering from uncertainty and trying to weigh up the ‘cost to benefit’ of getting vaccinated. Some of those costs are related to the perception of risk, but other costs might also include time and inconvenience, or perhaps a lack of motivation. 

So, what can New Zealand businesses do? While businesses might be hesitant to talk about the safety or efficacy of vaccines (leave that to the medical experts), they can have an even bigger influence by increasing the benefits of vaccination for the general public. By doing so, they increase the costs of not getting vaccinated.

Some businesses are already doing this, for example Air New Zealand signalling their ‘No jab, No travel’ position. This is not only morally the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense.

Employing and serving unvaccinated people is a huge business risk. The costs of shutting down a business or standing down staff every time someone with Covid-19 interacts with your company is not financially viable. From a purely clinical perspective, businesses can reduce the risk of disruption greatly by choosing only to do business with vaccinated people.

From a brand reputation perspective there might also be advantages in publicising the vaccination rate of your work force, in an anonymised way. Just ask yourself, would customers prefer to visit a store or restaurant with a 95 percent double vaccinated work force or a 60 percent vaccinated work force?

Imagine what would happen to our vaccination rates if all mainstream businesses from Kmart, The Warehouse, and KFC, to McDonald’s, private schools and shopping malls adopted a ‘No jab, No service’ customer policy as well as a N’o jab, No shift work’ policy?

Some might argue that this is discrimination but, as we covered in part one, people who choose not to get vaccinated (if they are eligible) are like people who choose to drink drive. We have laws in place that compel the police and businesses to treat intoxicated people differently, which also allow us to remove benefits (such as operating vehicles or buying more alcoholic drinks) as long as they remain in a condition that can cause harm.

Unvaccinated people have the potential to harm people who cannot be vaccinated due to health conditions or age. They also have the indirect potential to harm others by soaking up hospital resources for what is becoming a vaccine-preventable disease. Hospital resources that should be held in reserve for unpreventable emergencies.

In fact, there is already workplace legislation designed to protect people’s right to be free from harm. Essentially, no one can force a business to serve people who make them feel unsafe. No employer can force staff to work in an environment that makes them feel unsafe. And no one can tell you to interact with someone who makes you feel unsafe. The Government must acknowledge these fundamental rights and implement clear legislation that enable businesses to prioritise “freedom from harm”.

Although a person does not have to share their medical history with anyone else, some people might only feel safe doing business with others who voluntarily disclose their vaccination status. If the voluntary sharing of one’s vaccination status/certification becomes normalised in society, it may help business owners plan how to best run their businesses in a manner that keeps as many people as possible ‘free from harm’.

For instance, if I enter a retail environment and voluntarily show them my vaccine certificate, perhaps that will mean I can be served in a faster queue. In contrast, if staff did not know my vaccination status, their store policy might mean that they would need to implement further PPE precautions as well as conduct additional record keeping for contact tracing purposes.

Similarly, if I voluntarily share my vaccination certificate with my shift manager, they might find it less risky to assign me to more shifts. While your employer cannot ask you what your vaccination status is, you are free to share this information with them.

So, here’s the deal, people can argue “it’s my body” and therefore my choice, but they need to realise that other people also have an obligation to operate their businesses in a way that keeps their staff, livelihood, and other customers “free from harm”.

New Zealand businesses are not powerless. They can play an important role in enticing people to choose vaccination while simultaneously protecting their staff and customers from potential Covid harm: No jab, no shifts; No jab, no service.

In line with this, the Government may then wish to consider other tools to encourage vaccination uptake. Of note, Germany plans to end wage subsidies for unvaccinated workers who need to quarantine if they contract Covid. Across the Tasman, Australia is implementing No jab, no pay laws for their health care sector. This is unsurprising since Australia has always taken a more hard-line approach, linking immunisations to family assistance support since 2016.

I sincerely hope we won’t need to go that far in Aotearoa.

As Associate Professor of Marketing at University of Auckland Business School, Dr Michael Lee is an award-winning teacher of marketing strategy, marketing research and consumer behaviour.

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