The Federal Government introduced a mandatory vaccination for aged care workers last week, however disability advocates are split on whether vaccinations should be made mandatory for disability care workers as well.
The decision taken by the National Cabinet to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for people working within residential aged care is a responsible step in Australia’s fight against COVID-19, according to National Disability Services (NDS) Senior State and Territory Manager Karen Stace.
NDS is calling for that same step to be introduced to protect Australia’s vulnerable people with disability.
“The vulnerability of people with disability was recognised by the Federal Government when people with disability were included in phases 1a and 1b of the vaccine rollout,” Ms Stace says.
“That same recognition now must extend to vaccination policy by similarly mandating the vaccine in the disability sector. It just makes sense.”
Some people with disability are more likely to have comorbidity, leaving them particularly vulnerable to the worst impacts of the virus, including death.
However, not all advocates agree that vaccinations should be made mandatory in disability care.
Chief Executive Officer at the Physical Disability Council of New South Wales (PDCN), Serena Ovens, says the Government should approach mandatory vaccines with caution.
“One of the issues we’re concerned about is that a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine is likely to cause a number of people who work in disability care to leave the sector,” Ms Ovens says.
“People who don’t want to or choose not to be vaccinated would stop working and we’d see a significant drop in staffing.
“We believe everybody has the right to choose. Personally, I would hope everybody would choose to get vaccinated. That’s not only because they’re working with people with disability, but also for their own family members and themselves.”
“I can see why the Government is looking at it (mandating vaccines) but I think there's a number of other things they can do before mandating vaccines for those working in disability care.”
On the other hand, NDS believes the risks of enforcing vaccination outweighs the potential impact of COVID-19 outbreaks in shared homes.
“Our members are rightfully anxious that the virus could needlessly take hold within our communities,” Ms Stace says.
Alternative options to mandatory vaccines
However Ms Ovens says the Government has several alternatives to mandating vaccines for disability workers and that employment circumstances need to be considered.
“Part of the workforce is casualised and they often work across more than one setting,” Ms Ovens says.
“As a casual workforce, if they get sick, then they aren't getting paid. There’s a risk they may work sick because it’s the only way they’re going to meet their paid needs. So paid leave for sickness is something we should consider for some of these casual workers.
“Also, to receive the vaccine, carers likely need to go during work hours. So another thing we should look at is giving support workers and carers in disability care the option to receive the vaccine during work hours.”
The discussion around mandatory vaccinations can only take place if adequate supplies of the vaccine are available in the first place.
“A ruling of ‘no jab, no work’, can’t be enforced if people are unable to reasonably access a vaccine,” Ms Stace from NDS says.
“If the Government moves to introduce mandatory vaccines within the disability sector then the next step will be to work collaboratively on an implementation plan that works across the provider network.”
One thing the disability sector largely agrees on is the importance of getting the vaccine into the sector and the importance of clear and concise information. Both the NDS and PDCN agree that an engaging education campaign that shares the benefits of vaccination is essential to overcoming vaccine hesitancy.
“Clear information that encourages vaccination is so important, not only for the individual, but also for the benefit it brings to the disability community,” Ms Ovens says.
“For some people with disability, their whole lives have been on hold during COVID. They’ve been on lockdown for 90 per cent of the time COVID-19 has been in our population.
“This isn’t a couple weeks, but months and months in lockdown – it puts a huge stress on their mental health. It means some of those people in disability care are refusing care when they most need it. It leaves people very isolated and more at risk.
“We need to think about the fact that people with disability and the ones caring for them want to do the right thing, and that means they need the clearest information on vaccines and the easiest pathway to receive them.”