Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Major concerns over vaccinations Bill being passed under urgency – Constitutional disgrace

Opposition MPs and legal experts are crying foul over legislation around the new traffic light system and vaccination mandates they say is being rushed through Parliament without proper scrutiny.

Parliament went into urgency today for the first reading of legislation making a raft of changes to the Covid-19 response.

They include new vaccination mandates that with those already in force – including health and education sectors – will cover about 40 per cent of the workforce.

The Covid-19 Response (Vaccinations) Legislation Bill includes amendments to the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act 2020, to allow the new Covid-19 Protection Framework to come into force in just 10 days’ time.

This framework, also known as the traffic light system, includes requirements for workforces deemed high risk to be vaccinated, including hospitality, events, gatherings, close contact businesses and gyms.

Those workers would need to have a first dose by December 3 and a second by January 17. Non-compliant businesses could be fined up to $15,000.

The changes also include amendments to the Employment Relations Act 2000, to allow workers time off to get vaccinated, and a paid period of leave for those choosing not to be vaccinated.

With still about eight per cent of the eligible population yet to receive a dose of the Pfizer vaccine, potentially hundreds of thousands of workers could be impacted once the framework kicks in on December 3.

Polls have shown strong support for vaccine mandates, however polls have also shown confusion around the new traffic light system.

Legislation to support these changes needs to be passed before the new system comes into force, however as next is week Parliamentary recess it means there are just two days for the Bill to be debated.

Passing it under urgency, which the Labour Government can do with its majority, also means it bypasses normal levels of scrutiny, including from committees and public submissions.

Victoria University law and governance expert Dr Dean Knight said while he supported the framework it was a “constitutional disgrace” the legislation was being passed urgently without adequate consultation.

“Legislative change seriously implicating rights like this needs much more time to breathe, to be interrogated and for its legitimacy to be built through dialogue.”

His concerns included that much detail was still lacking; and the standard of checks to ensure it was consistent with the Bill of Rights – which could likely lead to judicial review.

“We’re in a pandemic and sometimes emergency settings means it’s inevitable that some things are expedited in suboptimal ways.

“But not this: the need for this framework was not unexpected, was signalled some time ago, and public participation could have been factored in.”

Knight said there needed to be a rapid post-enactment review, a mechanism for any recommendations to come back to the House where necessary, and a “sunlight clause” requiring the House to review and adjust the framework as necessary.

National’s Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop said the party would support the Bill given the urgency of it but were not happy with the rushed nature of the “significant” legislation.

“This is a truly shambolic and repugnant way to make law that will affect every New Zealander.

“To say the legislation is significant is an understatement. It will potentially affect the lives of every New Zealander, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, along with businesses both small and large.

“The traffic light framework will impact every Kiwi, during summer and beyond.”

Bishop said work should have started on this back in July when the Government began work on vaccination passes.

The party would be pushing for a post-enactment review process to the legislation can still go to a committee for scrutiny.

“We support vaccine passes and businesses being able to choose to use them but not this confusing and complicated framework. Polls show people find it very confusing.

“Inevitably there will be consequences, mistakes are often made in haste.”

Act Party leader David Seymour said while there were some parts of the legislation they supported, there were many areas of concern.

For example a worker could take four weeks’ paid leave and then return once they’d been vaccinated.

“The Government has given itself sweeping ability to make laws by dictate. It will rush them through under urgency tonight – but not that urgently.

“The Government has timed the legislation to be in Parliament after the 6pm news. They want to minimise public scrutiny by debating this law at night.”

He also criticised the timing: “The Government has had nine months to prepare. Now it’s giving employers 10 days to keep records, do health and safety assessments and put health and safety processes in place.”

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said engagement on the framework including vaccine passes “should have happened a long time ago”.

The party was calling for a specific Māori response plan and a commitment to bridging the 20 per cent vaccination gap between Māori and non-Māori.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the legislation had been prepared “as quickly as possible”.

It was quite a “significant and technical” and so “takes some time to get right”, he said.

Asked if that should not reiterate the need for greater scrutiny, Hipkins said that was not practicable.

“In an ideal world we would. But we are not going to tell Aucklanders to wait another month or two while Parliament scrutinises it.”

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood earlier announced a tool to help clarify what work should be covered by vaccinated workers and for assessing when it is reasonable to require vaccination for other work.

The four criteria, at least three of which must be met, include: the size of the work space, how close people are to others, how long they are near to others, and whether they provide services to people vulnerable to Covid-19.

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