Major changes to mandatory vaccination rules in healthcare settings

The Queensland Chief Health Officer has revoked the Workers in a Healthcare Setting public health direction, one of the last-standing COVID-19 public health directions, with the revocation taking effect from 6pm on 2 September 2022. In announcing the revocation, Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said vaccination requirements for healthcare workers are now left to each employers’ internal policies.

Previously, the “Healthcare Settings” referred to in the public health direction included workers in primary healthcare, private hospitals, and private allied health services. While workers in these settings are no longer required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 under a public health direction, Queensland Health will continue to enforce its own internal vaccination policies, with many private operators seeking to do the same.

Importantly, a replacement public health direction has been introduced to continue the vaccine mandates for workers in residential aged care and shared disability accommodation settings. The mandatory vaccination rules for workers in the aged care sector remains substantially similar and workers in that industry must continue to have all recommended doses (currently 3).

For the Disability Care Sector

In a major change for the disability services sector, workers who provide disability support services outside of a shared disability accommodation service are no longer covered by a public health direction.

Under the new public health direction, a shared disability accommodation service is defined as a service where:

  • four or more people with disability reside with people who are not members of their family in short or long term accommodation; and
  • the residents share enclosed common living areas within the facility; and
  • the residents are provided with disability supports within the facility.

If all of the above criteria are not met, the new public health direction will not apply to workers providing disability support services.

In another significant change, any person who is a shared disability accommodation service worker at a shared disability accommodation service must now have an “up-to-date” COVID-19 vaccination status. Now in line with aged care workers, these workers must receive the number of doses recommended by ATAGI (currently 3) by 30 September 2022. Previously, these workers were only required to have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

This new requirement applies to employees, contractors and students in a shared disability accommodation service, as well as doctors and allied health professionals who visit such a service regularly.

The new public health direction also creates an exception for shared disability accommodation service workers if the worker has had been infected with COVID-19 within the last 3 months.  This is in line with the advice of ATAGI that a person should not receive a vaccine within 3 months of infection.

Isolation period reduction

From Friday, 9 September 2022, the mandatory COVID-19 isolation period will reduce from seven days to five days for individuals without symptoms. This means that individuals no longer displaying symptoms (including a fever, cough, sore throat, or shortness of breath) on their fifth day of isolation, are not required to continue isolating and may return to work.

However, the reduced isolation period does not apply to workers in high-risk settings, including aged care, disability care, and home care settings. All employees engaged in these settings will continue to be subject to the existing seven-day isolation period.

Key takeaways for employers

Health sector employers wishing to continue their mandatory vaccination policies, despite the revocation of the previous public health direction, should seek legal advice on both the reasonableness of them doing so, and the best way to draft their policies moving forward.

Currently, the public health directions do not require a worker to provide a negative test before returning to the workplace, but again this is a matter that could be dealt with through a reasonably drafted policy (subject to the proper implementation of that policy).

The Fair Work Commission has recently upheld a number of challenges to unreasonable policies and health related directions, and so it is important that employer’s do a proper assessment of their specific circumstances, and ensure that any ongoing policy is effective in its drafting, to minimise the risk of a similarly effective legal challenge.

Accordingly, if you are health sector employer considering maintaining a mandatory vaccination policy, you should seek tailored advice from the employment law specialists at Aitken Legal.

Disclaimer: The information contained this article is general and intended as a guide only. Professional advice should be sought before applying any of the information to particular circumstances. While every reasonable care has been taken in the preparation of this update, Aitken Legal does not accept liability for any errors it may contain. Liability limited by a scheme approved under professional standards legislation.