Trucking lobby group says employers are playing “catch up” getting drivers vaccinated after the Government declined calls for vaccine prioritisation.

In January, Ia Ara Aotearoa Transporting New Zealand wrote to Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins asking for truck drivers to be prioritised for vaccination by being classified as essential frontline workers.

The industry group got declined and now chief executive Nick Leggett says employers are “playing catch-up’’ with their drivers.

Throughout the Delta outbreak in Auckland the Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues have said mandating vaccination for those crossing the domestic boundary was being considered, but it was logistically challenging.

On Wednesday Hipkins told Newsroom a “whole lot of practical considerations made it operationally difficult’’.

“We have to accept we still have to keep the country moving, we still need to supply people with food, for example, and that does mean we need people driving in and out of Auckland,’’ he said.

Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, went further, telling Newsroom the concentration had been on setting vaccine mandates in areas where “there is a high likelihood of transmission’’.

“There’s a low likelihood of transmission from someone who might be driving a truck out of Auckland and then coming back, especially if they are on a regular testing regime,” he said.

Leggett told Newsroom he was surprised to hear that comment, given the frontline nature of the trucking industry and the number of sites visited and the distance travelled on a regular basis.

There has also been an example during this outbreak of an unvaccinated truck driver testing positive in Palmerston North after travelling out of Auckland.

It didn’t lead to an outbreak in the Manawatu region, but triggered increased testing and surveillance.

In August, public health expert Professor Nick Wilson told Newshub there needed to be “urgent prioritisation of all essential workers for vaccination in groups three and four’’.

He specifically referenced truck and bus drivers and supermarket workers.

Wilson said not prioritising those workers had contributed to Sydney’s struggle with its Delta outbreak.

While it’s unlikely proof of vaccination would have replaced the rigorous testing regime truck drivers have been subjected to during this outbreak, it would have added an extra layer of protection.

“We wrote to Chris Hipkins in February asking that the trucking industry be prioritised as a frontline workforce. It wasn’t until Delta was upon us that people in Government woke up and thought vaccinating truck drivers was a priority,’’ Leggett said.

“We were disappointed with that.’’

“Given the mandates announced for other industries, we recognise we’re frontline – we’re in and out of many sites across the country.’’ – Nick Leggett

A survey of its members found 92 percent of trucking employers encouraged employees to get vaccinated and to do so on work time.

“Employers in the industry are working hard to encourage staff to get vaccinated and overcome barriers to vaccination, and to do so on work time,’’ Leggett said.

“Given the mandates announced for other industries, we recognise we’re frontline – we’re in and out of many sites across the country.’’

While a mandate over the last three months would have received some pushback because of the “significant shortage of labour’’ it would have been done if required.

“It would have frustrated the delivery of freight at a time when the economy can least afford it, but we’re all ears in terms of waiting to see what happens next,’’ he said.

Now that vaccination mandates are being rolled out widely, Leggett told Newsroom it’s “inevitable employers will do it themselves’’ if the Government doesn’t enforce it for the trucking industry.

The trucking workforce should have been prioritised for vaccination much earlier, and now “we are playing catch-up’’, he said.

The Prime Minister told Newsroom on Tuesday she had been “careful and considered in where we have put in place mandates’’.

“When it comes to those who work across borders, that’s been more of an issue because of the issue we have of a hard border at the moment.

“It is an area we wouldn’t step into lightly, because, of course, any move there with mandates could cause significant disruption to those networks, and we would be carefully considered and work alongside those workforces if we were to introduce mandates there,’’ she said.

Ardern’s hope has been that high vaccination would be achieved “without having to use mandates too widely’’.

But on Tuesday she announced mandates were being extended to businesses that require a vaccine certificate at entry.

Under the changes, up to 40 percent of the country’s workforce could be covered by vaccine mandates.

It will mean restaurants, cafes, gyms and other “close proximity” business, such as hairdressers, that want to operate with greater freedoms under the newly-announced traffic light system, will have to comply with the mandate.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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