Plane travel and COVID-19 vaccination : Qantas to mandate vaccines for frontline staff by November

Qantas has announced it will require its frontline staff to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by November to help it keep flights in the air and avoid the potential long-distance spread of the virus, joining fruit and vegetable giant SPC as the second major Australian company to make jabs mandatory.

In a statement on Wednesday, Qantas said its decision to mandate had been backed by a staff survey showing an overwhelming majority of its workforce either was vaccinated or planned to be, and supported mandatory jabs.

The national carrier’s decision will have a ripple effect throughout the aviation industry, with chief executive Alan Joyce revealing Qantas was working with contractors and suppliers who also wanted to mandate vaccinations.

“One crew member can fly into multiple cities and come into contact with thousands of people in a single day,” Mr Joyce said. “Making sure they are vaccinated given the potential of this virus to spread is so important, and I think it’s the kind of safety leadership people would expect from us.”

Qantas has already said passengers on international flights will need to be vaccinated when they resume, but Mr Joyce said he had not decided whether to extend that policy to domestic services.

The move will test industrial law, which most experts say does permit mandatory vaccination in high-risk industries like aviation, but that interpretation has not yet been considered by a judge or tribunal.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Finance Minister Simon Birmingham both backed Qantas’ move, which Mr Morrison said could serve as a model for other companies looking to mandate vaccines. Both reiterated that the government would not step in to legislate mandatory inoculation, leaving the decision up to companies.

“Federal law, as it stands, provides for employers to make reasonable requests,” Senator Birmingham said. “And I think most reasonable Australians would think that it is quite reasonable for Qantas to expect their staff to be vaccinated for an airline where people are working in confined situations, to take that type of step as a workplace health and safety measure.”

Asked whether Qantas’ policy amounted to “no jab, no job”, Mr Joyce did not give a definitive answer but said medical exceptions and redeployment opportunities would be limited.

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“If other employees decided that they’re not taking the jab, then they’re deciding I think that aviation isn’t the area for them,” Mr Joyce said.

SPC, the food manufacturing firm, has faced resistance from the union representing its workers and online threats from anti-vaccination activists in the wake of its decision to require jabs.

Other airlines, including the US giant Delta, have announced they will require vaccines for at least a portion of their workforce. Domestically, Alliance Aviation, which runs flights for fly in, fly out miners and is a Qantas contractor, has also announced it will require vaccinations.

The Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association quickly objected to Qantas’ plan, saying staff should not have to choose between a “jab and a job”. The association’s federal secretary Steve Purvinas argued staff could be placed in back office roles or take time off herd immunity, which some experts doubt will ever occur, exists.

Transport Workers Union boss Michael Kaine accused Qantas of issuing a premature diktat before consulting with unions or finding out the results of a meeting on Wednesday morning between regulators, industrial relations minister Michaelia Cash, unions and industry. He said some workers were still struggling to access vaccination.

“It’s mystifying, disturbing and unnecessary,” Mr Kaine said.

Qantas will require all its staff, even those who are not in frontline roles, to be vaccinated by the end of March next year. Frontline staff must be double-jabbed by November 15. Medical exemptions will apply and there will be consultation with unions, the company said.

In a survey of 12,000 Qantas staff, 89 per cent said they had received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose or planned to get one, which Qantas has encouraged with paid vaccination leave. About three-quarters of Qantas staff supported requiring all colleagues to be vaccinated.

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