The New Zealand military is holding firm on a requirement for its soldiers and staff to be vaccinated against Covid-19, in a move which seems set to again be challenged in the courts

Dozens of Kiwi defence personnel may be set to lose their jobs as the NZ Defence Force moves ahead with an internal Covid-19 vaccine mandate after a separate order was struck down by the courts.

Last December, the Government implemented a public health order requiring unvaccinated Police and Defence personnel to receive the Covid vaccine before February 28 this year or face termination.

But the High Court quashed the order in a February ruling, with Justice Francis Cooke ruling it was an unjustified limitation on the right to refuse medical treatment and to manifest religious beliefs (the latter in relation to those who objected to a vaccine tested on foetal cells).

However, Cooke said the legality of the order was different to that of pre-existing internal policies within the NZDF and police, which allowed “greater individual flexibility” to address an employee’s particular circumstances and the nature of their role.

In an April 12 directive, Chief of Defence Force Air Marshal Kevin Short noted the health order had been set aside by the courts but said the Covid vaccine had been part of the NZDF’s vaccination schedule since mid-2021.

“For members of the Armed Forces, meeting the vaccination schedule by being fully vaccinated is a condition of service. This requirement goes beyond health and safety and extends to their ability to serve where required by the NZDF, both domestically and internationally.”

Among the factors taken into account were the national and international mandates which imposed border entry restrictions and clinical evidence that Covid vaccines reduced the risk of serious illness or poor health outcomes, as well as a lessened chance of onward transmission.

“Given that members of the Armed Forces live and work closely together, infectious diseases can spread rapidly and could render large numbers of people unwell or having to isolate.

“Such a situation would quickly impact critical outputs, including safety-related components of duty tasks.”

“Being fully vaccinated is a condition of service and the Chief of Defence Force is empowered to set the conditions under which a member of the armed forces can serve.”

Every effort had been made to educate and reassure NZDF personnel about the importance of the vaccine, Short said, including the use of work time to attend vaccination and medical appointments.

Members of the Regular Force who were unvaccinated or had received only one dose would receive a formal notification of the intent to discharge them from service on April 29, and would be moved out by June 24 if the necessary approvals were given.

Personnel who had received their primary vaccinations but not a booster shot as of the same date would be given just over two weeks to receive it or face discharge.

An NZDF spokeswoman told Newsroom the requirement to receive certain vaccinations had been around for decades as part of the armed forces’ individual readiness requirements.

“Being fully vaccinated is a condition of service and the Chief of Defence Force is empowered to set the conditions under which a member of the armed forces can serve.”

The High Court ruling had not prevented it or other employers from setting their own internal vaccination policies, and the NZDF directive allowed a case-by-case approach for each affected person.

‘Well over 98 percent’ vaccinated – NZDF

The spokeswoman said the number of personnel who didn’t meet vaccine requirements continued to change and would be confirmed at a later date, but “well over 98 percent” of the NZDF’s regular forces and civilian staff were vaccinated with their primary dose or doses of an approved vaccine.

In evidence given to the High Court, the NZDF said that 99.2 percent of the regular forces and 98.7 percent of the civilian staff were fully vaccinated as of February 1, leaving just 115 people unvaccinated out of a workforce of 15,480.

The spokeswoman said the Chief of Defence Force had also endorsed a draft directive covering civilian staff, which would restrict access to certain defence areas to those who were fully vaccinated “unless otherwise exempted”.

The draft was currently out for consultation, with a final decision to be made after feedback closed on May 3.

The spokeswoman said the NZDF was unaware of any legal challenge to date in relation to the internal vaccine mandate.

However, United We Stand – a group of uniformed personnel who have opposed vaccine mandates – said it was planning to contest the NZDF’s internal mandate “to prove that these actions are not only immoral but also unlawful”.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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