More than half of the 94 port workers who boarded a COVID-stricken container ship docked at the Port of Tauranga have tested negative, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced on Tuesday morning.
Speaking to The AM Show, Hipkins confirmed 65 of the port workers have returned negative results after potentially being exposed to the virus last week.
On Monday, it was announced that 11 of the 21 crewmen on-board the Rio De La Plata container ship had tested positive for COVID-19. The crew had been swabbed by public health staff prior to the ship travelling to Napier, its next stop.
As a precaution, the 94 workers who had contact with the vessel were required to remain at home until returning a negative test result.
The two staffers who spent the most time on-board the vessel – both maritime pilots – are among the 65 to test negative, Hipkins said.
“Importantly, the two ship pilots – the person who went onto the ship to bring the ship into the port, and the person who went onto the ship to take the ship out of the port – have come back as negative. That’s really encouraging,” he told The AM Show.
“They are the people who had the closest contact with the ship, so the fact they’ve [tested] negative, that’s a good sign.”
Health officials are fending off widespread criticism regarding the lack of vaccine uptake among New Zealand’s port staffers. Hipkins has repeatedly claimed misinformation, which has been particularly rampant among the workforce, is largely to blame – fuelling fear and contributing to the low rates of vaccination.
“What we have seen is our port workers do seem to be more susceptible to misinformation around the vaccine, there’s been much more hesitancy to take up the vaccine among [them],” he said.
“Misinformation seems to have been the biggest barrier we’ve faced here.”
A mere 10 percent of the 94 workers potentially exposed to the virus on-board the container ship have received the jab – yet unvaccinated staff are still permitted to continue working on the frontline. Conversely, no unvaccinated worker is able to enter a managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facility.
But Hipkins argues that preventing port staff from returning to work is not a viable option, noting that removing crucial workers would grind the system to a halt. He added that only a small percentage of New Zealand’s port staff are required to board vessels, and these workers are hard to replace.
He says making the jab compulsory for all port staff would only fuel opposition to the vaccine, with officials instead opting for an education-based approach. Teams of medical professionals are now providing one-on-one guidance to reluctant workers in a bid to communicate the facts around vaccination.
However, he admitted the current numbers – with roughly 44 percent of the port workforce yet to receive a single jab – are “clearly not good enough”.
“It has proven a very challenging number to budge,” he said.
When grilled by The AM Show host Duncan Garner as to why unvaccinated workers are still continuing to board ships possibly carrying COVID-19, Hipkins reiterated workers at the greatest risk of exposure are now legally required to receive the vaccine.
Last month, the Government issued a new COVID-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Amendment Order making vaccination compulsory for border workers at the greatest risk of exposure.
The order, which came into effect at 11:59pm on July 14, required staff “at the greatest risk of exposure to COVID-19” across New Zealand’s ports, airports and MIQ facilities to get vaccinated.
At the time, only 54 percent of active port workers had received both doses.
“We need to see this number increased to avoid the risk of COVID-19 entering the country via our ports,” the order reads.
The legislation allows a “reasonable window” for vaccination. All Government employees covered by the order must have received their first dose by August 26, while all privately employed border workers are required to have their first dose by September 30. New workers covered by the order, regardless of employer, will need to have their first jab before starting.
“Border workers who remain unvaccinated after the requirements come into effect will need to discuss options with their employer,” the order says. “They will not be able to continue working in a high-risk border environment until they are vaccinated.”
The order applies to staff involved in handling affected items removed from ships, aircraft or MIQ facilities; who work for a company that is routinely engaged to provide services for an aircraft, ship or MIQ facility; or have contact with people who belong to different groups outlined in the order.
Hipkins reiterated port staffers have had the opportunity to receive the vaccine since the rollout began.
“Let’s be clear… vaccines have been available to workers at all of our ports, they’ve had access to vaccines longer than almost all New Zealanders,” Hipkins said.
“They were in Group 1, so they have been able to get the vaccine.”
The Rio De La Plata has been linked to a COVID-positive Australian pilot, who was on-board the vessel last month while it was docked in Queensland. He tested positive for the virus nine days after being aboard.
The pilot is confirmed to have the Delta variant, but has not been linked to any other cases in Queensland.
Initial concerns about the link to the pilot saw the loading of the vessel temporarily halted on Wednesday, August 4 in Tauranga. The ship was cleared later that day following an assessment and unloading was permitted to resume on Thursday, August 5 – but Hipkins says he’s unsure why this decision was made.
“I’ve got some questions about why they stopped unloading the ship and then re-started it again. I haven’t had the answers to those questions yet, I’ll get them later today. I’m not yet sure why they made that decision.”