COVID-19 UPDATE

Government moving to Level 2

With the Government announcing the country is moving to Phase Two tonight, Rapid Antigen Testing (RAT) and isolation exemptions for workers designated as critical workers will be introduced.

The Close Contact Exemption Scheme applies to approved organisations and businesses providing critical services and provides that where the staff are vaccinated and asymptomatic close contacts of a Covid19 case, the asymptomatic worker can return to work provide they return a negative RAT prior to each day/shift during the isolation period.  The Government is providing approved critical services organisations and businesses free RAT kits.

FENZ is still working on its testing policy and the application of the critical workers close contact exemption scheme.  The NZPFU has notified FENZ of the Union’s following principles:

  • Where a worker is asymptomatic but required by Government or FENZ to isolate the worker should be on paid special leave as the required absence is beyond their control.
  • Where any worker becomes symptomatic the usual sick leave provisions apply.  
  • Where the Close Contact Exemption Scheme applies,  the asymptomatic worker must still have an option to isolate if reasonable grounds to do so. The type of leave (including paid special leave or other leave) will be dependent on their personal circumstances and reasons for seeking to isolate.

The NZPFU does not support surveillance testing of every worker before every day/shift.  It is unlikely FENZ will have access to RATS for such testing even if FENZ purchases tests in addition to the Government-issued RAT tests. The NZPFU has informed FENZ of the Union’s following principles:

  • RAT testing should only be conducted in a safe and effective manner.  
  • RAT testing should only be conducted where there is good cause to test.  Examples include where the workers may have been exposed to a known positive case and where the critical workers Close Contact Exemption Scheme requirements.
  • If the Close Contact Exemption Scheme requirements are being applied and the worker refuses a RAT test the worker will have to isolate in accordance with MOH requirements.  The applicable type of leave will be discussed with the worker and their union representative.
  • If a worker refuses a RAT test in any other circumstance the reasons for the requiring a test and the reasons for refusal will be discussed with the workers and their union representative.

An example of good cause to test has been Northcom.  Northcom staff have been undertaking RAT prior to commencement of shift since Saturday due to a positive test result of a worker in the Comms Centre (but not a FENZ employee).  To date the FENZ staff have not returned a positive test.    

More information on the three-Phase system: https://covid19.govt.nz/news-and-data/latest-news/government-announces-three-phase-public-health-response-to-omicron/

More information on the testing and isolation regime and the critical workers close contact exemption scheme:https://www.business.govt.nz/covid-19/close-contact-exemption-scheme/           

Booster mandate

Late yesterday afternoon the Government extended the deadline for the booster mandate for health workers and those working in proximity with health workers including firefighters.

  • Those that were eligible to have their booster shot as of 11.59pm on 14th February now have until 11.59pm on the 24th February 2022 to have the booster shot.
  • For those not eligible to have their booster shot on or before the 24th February 2022,  the deadline remains up to 183 days from their date of their second vaccination dose.
  • For those captured by the mandate for working in or with schools the 1 March 2022 booster deadline remains unchanged for those eligible to have their booster, or 183 days from the date of the second vaccination.  

Everyone is entitled to continue to work until their booster deadline has passed.  At that point a stop work notice will be issued and the process for determining any alternative duties and options (as applied to non-vaccinated workers) will commence. 

COVID-19 exposure controls

The NZPFU National Committee met yesterday to discuss the impact of the booster mandate on already stretched staffing, Covid-19 response changes through Region Resource Allocation Models (RAMS), and Rapid Antigen Testing.  The outcome of that meeting was outlined at a NCOM and Locals Covid-19 meeting yesterday afternoon.  The key points are:

  • Most Districts are already in a staffing crisis with Locals reporting Officers riding down of firefighters riding up to maintain minimum crewing, crews riding short when all options are exhausted and at times trucks have been taken off the line. Auckland had 11 stations closed on the same day recently and 33 occasions where minimum crewing was breached. Almost every other Local has reported shortages in recent times affecting crews and trucks on the run.  This crisis rests solely with FENZ whose response to the staffing crisis has been to cancel a recruits course!
  • We cannot agree to make changes to response and deploying that create or exasperate staff shortages.
  • All actions and any changes being considered or implemented to address the pressures of the Omicron outbreak must be focused on maintaining safe systems of work where possible.   This includes taking appropriate steps to maintain Minimum Staffing and to keep the trucks on the run.  
  • Where controls or protocols are being considered or implemented that cause crews to run short or result in trucks being taken off the run responding those measures should be changed.    For example where a District implements a bubble system and solely due to the bubble restrictions on movement/overtime the crews are riding short or trucks are taken offline, that is not an appropriate control.  If there are available firefighters to staff appliances they should be utilised to maintain minimum staffing.

We are fully cognisant that as firefighters are designated close contacts or test positive there will be greater pressure on staffing.  It is important we do not pre-empt those situations or cause staffing shortages through the measures being taken to reduce possible exposures.

We are in a very different situation that when the bubble system worked last time:

  • The rest of the country is not in lockdown and the Government-imposed restrictions only reduce numbers in a venue dependent on vaccination status.
  • The staffing crisis has been affected with the loss of unvaccinated firefighters, and there are likely to be firefighters that do not meet the booster deadlines.
  • The Government has sent strong messages regarding mandatory vaccinations/boosters and now providing for isolation exemptions for critical workers.  The message is clear – the intention to is to keep emergency services responding to the community despite the pending predicted escalating outbreak.

Be safe, be careful, be mindful

Responding during the Omicron outbreak will be hugely concerning for many.  Masks, hygiene practices, PPE and protocols have worked well to keep firefighters safe but we have to be prepared for Covid19 positive cases in our ranks and amongst our members.  Please be mindful of the stress on everybody and the different concerns our members will have regarding the health and welfare of their families and loved ones.

The application of the Close Contact Exemption Scheme will be challenging for those that have vulnerable family members.  Please talk to your Union representative if you have particular concerns or a situation that may require particular consideration.

Please be considerate of those struggling with the vaccination and booster requirements. 

It is unprecedented to send workers home with the threat of losing their jobs because they have not met a public health requirement.  All our members, regardless of role,  are integral to the protection of the community and suffer personal hardship and detriment to their health and wellbeing to do so.

Mandates do not allow the personal circumstances of an individual to take precedence.  Many are facing the loss of a cherished career where they have willingly and diligently put their quality and quantity of life on the line for their community for many years.  The decisions they are making are not just about the mandate, but about their families and their future.  They are facing losing their jobs, careers, income and for some that will mean their homes.  But for the required vaccinations they would be working beside you intending to continue their service to the community.  They need time, respect and support so that when the Government lifts restrictions they can choose to return to their work and careers.  Some have lost contact with family and friends due to their situation – please don’t add their colleagues and comrades to that list.

In unity,
Wattie Watson
National Secretary

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