Yesterday Whakatāne District Council voted 10 – 1 to require a vaccination pass to enter all Council facilities excluding parks, reserves, playgrounds, cemeteries, the Murupara outdoor pool, and public toilets that are not inside a Council facility. This sets out why I voted the way I did. It is not my speech word for word, more like a mash up of the 2 different times I spoke.
I want to start by reminding us of the context of this discussion. NZ has had very low rates of covid infection to date. This has allowed us to keep fatalities low, as health services have been able to cope. This is very different from many other places where health services have been overwhelmed by covid cases.
This is now changing, and our national strategy is changing as well, as infections are increasing. I don’t envy Central Government decision-makers, who have to balance people’s civil and human rights, with the right to life, and their obligations to protect the community. I haven’t agreed with all their decisions, but I think we have to start from a basis that they are trying their best to balance those different needs. But it is difficult, and our very success has made NZers complacent. Add to that the misinformation that is circulating, often originating in overseas interests who want NZ to fail.
So we have to be very careful who we listen to. Councillor Silcock mentioned a doctor who has been talking about the rise of suicides in Auckland as a result of lockdown. I’d love to know where those figures come from because I’ve just looked up the latest report on suicide rates from the Chief Coroner and that is not true. Suicide rates have been down for the last two years. Those figures only go to June, but still cover a significant period of lockdown. Mental Health Foundation Chief Executive Shaun Robinson has criticised speculation on increased suicides saying “We are aware of increased levels of distress, especially in Auckland, where lockdown is taking its toll on the wellbeing of so many people. But speculation that this will lead to increases in suicide is unfounded.”
I understand the concerns. At the start of this pandemic I was vaccine hesitant, but I have had to have a hard look at the science, at the peer reviewed studies and the advice of public health experts who have spent their lives trying to save lives. We councillors are not epidemiologists – none of us. As people in positions of responsibility should we take our advice from actual epidemiologists and public health experts, the vast majority of whom are in clear agreement, or should we just follow whatever we read on social media? Obviously we have to listen to the actual evidence, and the evidence is very clear.
Being vaccinated doesn’t mean you cannot get covid or transmit it.
Being vaccinated carries some risk of adverse side effects. But despite what you might think from social media algorithms, significant side effects are rare.
The risks from getting covid are much higher. There seems to be around 1 or 2 deaths per hundred covid cases – which is quite a lot of people if covid spreads significantly. Around 1 in 3 have serious long term side effects.
One in three.
Vaccine risks are very low compared to that.
Vaccinated people CAN get covid but unvaccinated people are much more likely to. Obviously that means they are much more likely to infect others. Being unvaccinated also means that people’s symptoms are likely to be far worse – they much more likely to have serious impacts or die. But that’s a risk people can decide for themselves. That’s got nothing to do with us as a council. What we DO need to pay attention to is the risk to others.
So when it comes to being vaccinated, people have a choice. But choices also have consequences. To use Councillor Luca’s analogy, people can choose to smoke tobacco, which increases their risks of all kinds of serious health issues, and that is their right. But they do not have a right to smoke inside, in places that put others at risk. In fact we have banned such behaviour as a country.
So we must always remember the purpose of any restrictions, which is not to punish people for their choices, but should only be to reduce significant risk to others. People who choose to not be vaccinated should not be given unnecessary or unreasonable restrictions. It’s worth recalling that government regulations say that you cannot be asked to provide your Vaccine Pass to access basic services, such as supermarkets, dairies, petrol stations, public transport, pharmacies and essential health care.
I’ve had lots of emails in the last couple of days about how valued council services are – which is great to hear. We provide really important functions and facilities. But restrictions aren’t based on how much people value our services – they are based on what is the best way to keep our community safer.
So I support the amendment to exclude open spaces from vaccine passes, as the risk of transmission in those situations is much lower. I will move an amendment to explicitly exclude the Murupara Pool as well, as that is a predominantly outdoor facility with a low density of users. Additionally I would like us to state clearly that we are committed to maintaining our services for all members of the community, vaccinated and unvaccinated, by providing alternative means of access where this is practical.
But lets remember that if our staff do get infected, they are likely to spread it to a lot of people because most of our staff engage with many different people. We do not want council facilities to become super spreader locations. In addition as councillors we have legal and ethical obligations to our staff, to not put them at undue risk and to provide a safe working environment, as far as possible.
So Whakatāne is going into the new traffic light system at red. We have recent infections and low rates of vaccination compared to other parts of the country. This puts our health services capability, in particular our ICU beds, under threat. This is not just a concern for covid cases but for all those people that will have treatment delayed or cancelled if covid cases are taking up resources. So we need to do what we can to support reasonable public health measures in a time of pandemic.
So it seems self evident to me that we need to introduce a vaccination pass system. If we don’t, some of our facilities will have to close entirely. It seems unfair to deny access to all because a small number choose not to get vaccinated. It is also likely that many vaccinated people will avoid our facilities if we do not have a vaccination pass system in place. Again that seems like an unfair outcome.
Finally I’ll say that I am aware that some of our frontline staff are already getting abuse for trying to enforce the previous guidelines. I trust they will get the support they need to handle this kind of aggression, and I ask people who disagree with the decision we are making today to not take it out on staff. Talk to those of us who made the decision.