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Editorial: Flu jab rebels should get another job

First published as an editorial in the New Zealand Herald

It beggars belief that any nurses employed in public hospitals would be allowed to decline vaccinations against winter flu. It strains credibility further to hear these nurses complain they are obliged to wear face masks in the wards. And it is nothing short of disgraceful their national union, supported by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, backs them up.

Plenty of people outside the public health services decline flu vaccines, even when provided free in workplaces. This is a free country and people are free to make unhealthy decisions for themselves, even when their decision reduces the immunity that can be provided for the community. The best health authorities can do is to promote and practise good sense, based on medical research.

Nurses and other health professionals are also free to question the wisdom of immunisation or any other medical practices if they wish, but if so they should look for a job with an alternative provider.

Nurses are very much the face of the system taxes pay for. They are the professionals most visible to patients and visitors in public hospitals. They are the staff most likely to engage in conversation with patients. If they distrust medical science to the extent they would refuse an inoculation, the hospital employing them has grounds for concern.

Three such nurses employed by the Waikato District Health Board have been required to wear face masks in Waikato Hospital, which they refuse to do. They have subsequently been suspended. Another employee at the hospital has been dismissed. The New Zealand Nurses Organisation considers the face masks “punitive” and even “bullying”. The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists is concerned they could lead to “naming, shaming and blaming” unvaccinated staff.

District health boards are well within their rights to impose a safety precaution as a second best to inoculation, but breath filters are a poor second best. It is not pleasant for patients to be attended by nurses whose breath appears to be unhealthy, and if patients inquire they are liable to be told the real reason for the mask. At that point it becomes a statement that the wearer, a health professional, lacks confidence in inoculation, which is hardly in the interest of public health.

Waikato is the first district board to make masks mandatory for staff who decline vaccination. It needs to come up with a better response, but what? The Nurses Organisation believes in vaccination and wants nurses’ employers to provide the shots. It accuses the Waikato board of failing to adequately consult unions on the implementation of its response to recalcitrant nurses and the possible impact on staffing.

Surely this is not an issue that can leave hospitals short of staff. If so, boards need to look at their recruitment standards, too. People employed in our public health services should be prepared to respect the findings of medical science and promote its recommended practices. If they cannot accept so much as a flu jab, they should get another job.

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