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Disability sector sceptical about potential mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for workers

People in the disability sector have said mandatory COVID-19 shots for workers would not be their first choice for boosting vaccination rates, after the prime minister flagged such a move could be made in the coming days.

At a late-night press conference on Monday, Scott Morrison announced national cabinet had agreed to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for residential aged care workers.

Asked whether a similar mandate would apply to disability care workers – another priority vaccination group – Mr Morrison said: “We didn’t make that decision tonight, but there is further advice that will be coming back [and] we expect to receive that on Friday”.

Anne Kavanagh, a University of Melbourne professor who has conducted a study on vaccine hesitancy among disability support workers, said a policy of mandatory vaccinations could result in up to a fifth of the workforce exiting. 

She said a better idea would be to explore multiple avenues improving voluntary access to COVID-19 vaccines.

“I don’t think it is time yet to make it mandatory because it has been so difficult to access,” she said.

“The rollout to the disability sector has been incredibly poor to date – and until we improve that and access is easy, I don’t think we should be making it mandatory. I think it is quite a heavy-handed approach.

“My major concern is in the work we have done, about a fifth of workers say they would leave the workforce.”

Prof Kavanagh said while some of the 357 disability workers she surveyed had concerns around the COVID-19 shot, only one per cent said they were sceptical of all vaccines.

“So that suggests that there is a lot better messaging that we need to do about the COVID-19 vaccine in particular,” she said.

Last month, the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine to people in disability residential facilities was deemed an “abject failure”, with the disability royal commission hearing evidence the sector was effectively de-prioritised. 

About 42 per cent of participants of the National Disability Insurance Scheme have now been vaccinated with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the government says.

Just 429,000 doses have been administered across both residential aged and disability care, government data shows.

Given the multiple Australian jurisdictions in lockdown at the moment, Professor Kavanagh said there is an urgency to ensuring vaccination rates are higher across the disability sector.

“It is an urgent issue. And as we see more outbreaks occurring in most states in Australia it is bound to get into aged and disability care at some stage unless something is done to improve the workforce vaccination uptake.”

Serena Ovens, executive officer at the Physical Disability Council of NSW, said she also had concerns about mandating vaccinations among the disability workforce.

“I have mixed feelings about that … I think we would lose more workers and that would be more concerning. A range of measures would be better, such as paid leave to have a vaccination,” she said.

“For casuals, getting paid sick leave would make them less likely to take risks and work while sick. What should be mandatory is not working across multiple sites.” 

The rollout of the coronavirus vaccine to people in disability residential facilities was deemed an "abject failure" last month

The rollout of the coronavirus vaccine to people in disability residential facilities was deemed an “abject failure” last month


Meanwhile, people with disability and their advocates have also called for a shakeup of how the vaccine is rolled out outside of care settings.

Social enterprise Ability Works, in the Melbourne suburb of Kew, has 11 per cent of its 180-strong workforce of people with disability vaccinated with one dose. 

The non-profit’s CEO, Sue Boyce, said low rates of vaccination in both the disability and wider community have not only created anxiety for her employees, but also threatened the ability of the enterprise to deliver on commercial contracts.

“We would prefer to have everyone vaccinated as soon as possible because the cost in the workplace of having someone catch COVID-19 would be astronomical,” she said.

“If we had a single case of COVID-19 we would have to shut down the entire workplace because we have a vulnerable population. We couldn’t bring people back to work until they were COVID-free.”  

Employee Graham Simpson, who is vision impaired, said it has been frustrating trying to book an appointment to get a COVID-19 vaccine. 

“From what I can understand, you can only book vaccination appointments on the internet – and I wouldn’t have a clue how to work the internet,” he said.

“I don’t go out very often because I am frightened in case I get COVID. It just feels like I’m going to end up missing out [on the vaccine]. I went to see my local GP to see if he is offering COVID-19 vaccines – and he’s not. He said his surgery is too small.”

Ms Boyce said she would welcome people coming to the workplace to vaccinate all staff.

“It would be the most practical solution: have vaccinations in workplaces so people don’t have to navigate all the challenges involved with getting to a vaccination site,” she said.

“It would help our employees from the perspective of not having to work out where a vaccination site is, particularly if you have an intellectual disability; how to get there; [and] all the challenges around [building] accessibility when they go somewhere new.”

Prof Kavanagh said the use of workplaces to administer the flu vaccine to staff shows the approach could be effective.

“It is much more straightforward to get many more people vaccinated in one go. [We need to] make it easy for someone to get the vaccine.”

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