11 Nov 2021

Covid-19 vaccine mandates: Clarity sought for lifeguard volunteers

5:09 pm on 11 November 2021

Surf Life Saving and Coastguard are scrambling to confirm which volunteers must be vaccinated against Covid-19, and what that means for rescues on the water.

Surf Life Saving New Zealand, and software company Emsisoft, will use GPS data and drones to map rip currents and their behaviours.

Surf Lifesaving told its volunteers it is taking legal advice on whether they will need to be fully vaccinated. (File image) Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

New Zealand's Coastguard gave volunteers a week to confirm they had been fully vaccinated or be stood down.

Surf Lifesaving told its volunteers it is taking legal advice on whether they will need to be fully vaccinated, but thinks it is likely.

Search and rescue squads and paid lifeguards are covered by the government mandate, Surf Life Saving (SLSNZ) said in a circular sent out last Friday.

It told local branches it was aware there would be implications for club resourcing if volunteers were included in the government list.

"We will wait until we have had confirmation of exactly what the government position is for our roles that provide first aid care and interact with children before we pass on that advice," it said.

"However, in the meantime the writing is on the wall and we strongly encourage clubs start preparations now for an environment where anyone in a lifeguard role and involved with children at the club has to be vaccinated.

"We are aware that some clubs have already taken this step to provide certainty for their own operations and this is fully endorsed by SLSNZ."

In a statement, SLSNZ chief executive Paul Dalton said: "Based on the figures for the overall population, we believe the vast majority of staff and volunteers are already vaccinated, so don't anticipate there will be any issues with capability over the coming summer."

As well as search and rescue squads, lifeguards operating in schools in community education programmes also have to be vaccinated.

Boats left in Auckland's harbour after the tide withdrew.

Coastguard responded to 41 incidents on sunday across the Auckland region. (File image) Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Making waves

Coastguard told crews in level 3 areas on 29 October they needed to be fully vaccinated by 5 November or step back from operational duties.

In a statement, Coastguard said all its units were operational and it was aware of fewer than 10 Auckland volunteers who were unvaccinated.

"Given the relaxing of restrictions and forecast increase in community transmission, Coastguard revised its risk assessment and concluded that a further temporary and targeted measure was appropriate to protect volunteers, staff and the public we interact with," a spokesperson said.

"It's also important to mention at alert level 3, we have seen significant increase in boating activity since restrictions eased in the Auckland region and this highlights the increased risk to our volunteers."

One non-emergency incident was re-assigned to another unit after a crew shortage meant a vessel was unable to go out, he said.

"Sunday was a particularly busy day across the Auckland region, with Coastguard responding to 41 incidents."

The spokesperson said it was not uncommon for Coastguard units to be unable to respond given the number of volunteers involved, but added that their capacity had not been affected by the vaccination order.

"Coastguard responded to 61 incidents over the past weekend in the broader Auckland region alone. We are unable to clarify the exact number due to the various factors that go into tasking a unit to an incident."

There were high call-out rates in Auckland and record numbers of boats on the Waikato region's west coast as changes to the level 3 regulations came into effect, according to the regional council.

"The weather was stunning and Raglan had probably double the number of boats we would ever have in a peak season out on the water at the same time," Waikato Regional Harbourmaster Chris Bredenbeck said.

The surge in boaties on the town's shores and on Lake Karāpiro was likely due to the Waikato alert level 3 boundary, it said, because that prevented boaties travelling to the Firth of Thames and Coromandel Peninsula.

Fireworks as mandate roles increase

Other organisations are also grappling with the latest government mandate, like homecare and support workers, who will not be able to work from Tuesday if they are not vaccinated by then.

Another part of the mandate does not list job roles but instead requires vaccination for those "who carry out work where health services are provided to members of the public by one or more health practitioners and whose role involves being within two metres or less of a health practitioner or a member of the public for a period of 15 minutes or more".

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Fire and Emergency has asked for a temporary exception to the vaccine mandate. (File image) Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

It prompted Fire and Emergency to find out vaccination rates among its 13,000 operational and community staff and ask the government for a temporary exception to the vaccine mandate.

Minister of Internal Affairs Jan Tinetti today said she was exploring implementing that option for a brief period of time.

Volunteers make up more than 80 percent of the country's firefighters and they were told at the end of October they would need to have their first dose by the end of next Monday, 15 November.

The Professional Firefighters' Union (PFU) warned today about 300 of FENZ's paid staff were unvaccinated and they feared for the implications on rural areas.

"There is a lot of work that needs to be done to keep the community safe," said PFU national secretary Wattie Watson.

"If the firefighters that are either undeclared or unvaccinated cannot respond on Tuesday, New Zealand will not have the fire service it does now, it will not have the emergency medical response it does now, we certainly wouldn't be able to deal with a massive event.

"I think it's about being able to prepare, and having accurate information. If we have a percentage of career and volunteer firefighters that ultimately aren't vaccinated, there has to be some procedures put in place to deal with it."

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