COVID-19 Update #11 Vulnerable Person Status

Do not disclose any underlying medical condition without first seeking advice from NZPFU

According to the NZ Government Covid-19 website (https://covid19.govt.nz/help-and-advice/for-everyone/vulnerable-people/) the following groups of people are at a higher risk if exposed to the Covid-19 virus:  At-risk people include:

  • Those over 70: Older people often have underlying health issues, including respiratory issues that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • People with medical conditions: Underlying medical conditions can make you more vulnerable to COVID-19. In particular, people with respiratory conditions, such as COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), heart conditions, high blood pressure, kidney problems and diabetes.
  • People undergoing a treatment for cancer and blood conditions: As treatments for cancer and blood conditions affect people’s immune systems, this makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • Pregnant women: Health experts do not yet know if pregnant women are impacted by COVID-19 in the same way as other people. However, pregnant women experience changes in their bodies that may increase their risk from some infections. 
  • People without easy access to healthcare

For some of New Zealand’s communities, other aspects of their lives may mean they are also at risk. This includes:

  • Residents of aged care facilities: Aged care facilities are susceptible to the rapid transmission of viruses like this. Residents are more susceptible to illnesses due to their age and they are also more likely to have underlying health conditions.

The NZPFU advice for those that that may fall within the “at-risk” categories to take the following steps (if you have not already resolved the issue for you in your workplace):

  1. If you have one of the listed underlying medical conditions (listed above) contact your GP and/or specialist and discuss the nature of your work including types of response and contact with public. Attached is FENZ’s guidelines for risk assessment that can be provided to your GP and/or specialist for their information.  You are only providing it as background information to assist with risk assessment.  Please ensure your medical practitioner does not disclose the type of underlying medical condition to your employer.

  2. If your medical advice is that you are not within the vulnerable group then you do not need to do anything further.

  3. If your medical advice is that you fall within the vulnerable category for Covid-19 risk and you cannot continue in your role because of the Covid-19 risk then get a medical certificate from your GP stating only that you come within the NZ Government classification of a vulnerable person and therefore cannot continue operational response including to the general publicDo not disclose, and ensure your medical certificate/advise does not disclose, the underlying medical condition or any medications.  You do not have to disclose your underlying medical condition or any information about any treatment, medications etc.  

    - Most GPs and Specialists now have contactless appointment so you can communicate by email and telephone.
    - It is important that you maintain your privacy and your personal medical information as this issue is purely in response to the Covid-19 risk. 
    - Do not disclose, and ensure your medical advice does not disclose, the underlying medical condition.   You only have to have a doctor state that due to an underlying medical condition your are classified as a vulnerable person if exposed to Covid-19.  It is important that this expressly states purely in relation to Covid-19.
    - Also discuss with your Doctor the aspects of your role/tasks you perform that places you at risk.  There may be other roles/tasks you can perform that are within your role that you can perform safely or with necessary adjustments.

  4. Take your medical certificate (ensuring it only declares you as a Covid-19 vulnerable person and does not disclose your underlying medical condition) to your manager to discuss.  We strongly advise you first talk to your union representative before taking the medical certificate and discussing options with your management.

For those that have medical advice that they come within the vulnerable group category, and but for the Covid-19 risk would be able to continue their duties, you should be placed on paid special leave until the risk is alleviated.   

  • The discussions with your manager may include whether there is other work/duties you can perform either at home or safely. 
  • The option of you undertaking different duties, or those that are not within your job description, can only be by your agreement. 
  • We strongly advise you discuss those situations with your union representative before agreeing to undertake any other duties, to protect your rights including ensuring it is documented that this is only for the duration of you being vulnerable within the Covid-19 context.

FENZ is about to release a voluntary process for assessing operational personnel with underlying health/medical conditions that includes personnel providing detail of particular conditions and medications they may be prescribed on a form.  The NZPFU is of the view that it is not in your interests to fill out the form and disclose your underlying medical condition.  Instead, take the steps listed above as advised by the NZPFU. 

  • The NZPFU is very concerned that medical information of underlying or historic medical conditions may be misused and impact on the members’ future employment.  These underlying conditions or medications do not prevent you from undertaking your duties safely normally.
  • We have grave reservations about the collection and use of information that details an underlying medical condition even with FENZ’s agreement it would not be used post Covid-19. 
  • In the past FENZ has chosen to override medical clearance for return to work post illness and immediately stood down the firefighter, whether that illness affected their ability to do their job safely or not.  This has been done without checking with the GP or relevant specialist and has cause the firefighter great stress.  We therefore have grave reservations about any undertaking that this information will not be used outside of the Covid-19 context, no matter how genuine the person giving that undertaking is.
  • FENZ has addressed some of our concerns by changing the process to include a third party to de-identify the information. FENZ has contracted a consultancy to remove the personal identifying information from the form that the employee has completed.  However, even without the employee’s name, the actual underlying medical condition will be exposed and if the person is deemed to be vulnerable then it is possible they can be identified as that person is likely to then have to take special paid leave.  Despite these changes the NZPFU is of the strong view that FENZ does not need to know what the underlying medical condition is, only whether the person is vulnerable to Covid-19 and therefore cannot continue with their usual duties.  
  • The FENZ process still has FENZ personnel/medical officer deciding whether the employee is vulnerable and unable to work as a result of the risk to Covid-19.  The NZPFU is strongly of the view that is a medical decision that should be determined in confidence with the employee and their GP or specialist.

It is important that you keep yourself safe and do come forward if you are within the vulnerable category, but it is just as important to protect your privacy and control your medical information.   If in any doubt as to what to do please contact your union representative.

In unity,
Wattie Watson
Secretary

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