Vax passports: Business takes cues from government

With just over 17% of South Africa’s adult population fully vaccinated representatives from business, labour and the government have been thrashing out ways to motivate more people to get jabbed and to restart an economy still reeling from the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last week, Discovery South Africa  drew a line in the sand, becoming the first company listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange to mandate vaccinations for its staff. In a statement accompanying its year-end financial results, the insurer said the mandatory vaccination policy would come into effect next year.

Other companies may follow Discovery’s example. But if vaccines are going to be used as a tool to reopen the economy, some are looking to the government to take the lead.

Discovery said its incoming policy was based on its “clear moral and social obligation, as informed by our core purpose to make people healthier and to enhance and protect their lives; and by our values, particularly, acting as a force for social good; and supported by a legal obligation to protect and safeguard all employees from all potential risks”.

Mandatory vaccines at work

The policy draws on a June 2021 directive by Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi, which outlines how mandatory workplace vaccinations can be implemented. The  matter was up for debate at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac).

Commenting on Discovery’s decision, finance and markets analyst Mark Barnes said it was in the country’s best interest to introduce vaccine mandates and thus make it possible to reopen the economy, which has been weighed down over the past 18 months by lockdowns with varying degrees of severity aimed at slowing down Covid-19 infections.

“It is the gateway out of lockdown. And that gateway out of lockdown is going to enable economic activity, which we desperately need to address poverty, inequality and unemployment,” Barnes said.

“I think it is the bridge between managing the spread of disease and enabling economic freedom. And I think both of those are absolutely necessary.”

First National Bank portfolio manager Wayne McCurrie agreed that vaccine mandates, such as the one taken up by Discovery, could help the country’s ailing economy by getting people back to work. 

South Africa’s economy contracted by 6.4% in 2020. The country’s GDP has steadily risen after last year’s sharp decline, but it has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels.

“By the end of the year — here and worldwide — it will almost be the norm,” said McCurrie. “Ultimately, it is probably a good thing because it may force people who didn’t want to get vaccinated to get vaccinated. And the more people are vaccinated, the less strain the disease will put on the economy.”

He noted, however, that the government has been cautious regarding the discussion of compulsory vaccinations. “But it is almost going to become an obligation to get vaccinated. You can see it overseas … It is going to be the same over here.”

Will jobs be threatened?

Discovery’s policy does not mean that all its unvaccinated employees will lose their jobs, Aadil Patel, the head of employment law at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, explained. Employees may be consulted before having to get the vaccine and they have the right to lodge an objection should they not want to do so.

Patel questioned why the government had placed the burden of vaccine mandates on businesses by not passing any legislation or creating a mechanism for people to object.

“Why has the government placed the onus on employers, whether they are in the public or private sector? Why does the government still say that you are not going to be forced to be vaccinated, when it attempts to create the framework for employers to enforce it?” Patel said.

Employers may be put in a position in which they have to defend against industrial action by workers who refuse to get inoculated — and bosses may decide that enforcing vaccine mandates is just not worth the cost, he pointed out. 

“So if you are serious about the vaccine, the approach that we are adopting, with kid gloves, may not be the most prudent approach,” he said. “Just give us the tools to make our lives easier, as employers. Why don’t you reach an agreement at Nedlac?” 

Looking to the government

Companies the Mail & Guardian contacted, including Redefine Properties and Growthpoint — which could be affected should vaccine passports be imposed at workplaces and at malls — would not give their stance on vaccine mandates.

“As a company committed to the health and safety of our communities, customers, tenants and employees, we will continue to take guidance from the government on Covid-19 measures,” a Redefine spokesperson said.

Sun International, the lodestar of the country’s hard-hit hospitality industry, also said it would wait on the government to make a call.

“The current vaccine roll-out in South Africa is encouraging, but the issue of vaccine passports and placing restrictions on unvaccinated individuals is something for the government to decide on,” said Graham Wood, the group’s chief operating officer for hospitality.

“We align with government policy and as current regulation does not restrict the movement of people, there is also no restriction on who can visit our properties. Should the government change the regulation in the future, we will review our operations accordingly, as we have done throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Sun International has no policy that requires staff to be vaccinated, Wood added, “but we obviously encourage them to do so”.

Thuthula Balfour, the head of health at the Minerals Council South Africa — which represents employers in the country’s mining sector — said the organisation would not comment on vaccine passports.

“We believe that we can get where we want to be by proactively working with our employees and with organised labour. Based on a risk-based approach, individual companies may pursue mandatory vaccination among certain occupations and roles and among vulnerable individuals should this become necessary, and legislation allows, but I don’t believe we are there yet,” she said.

Whether restaurant patrons decide to get vaccinated is a personal choice, said Wendy Alberts, the chief executive of Restaurants Association of South Africa, adding:  “And I don’t think any restaurant here is going to cause any further negative impact. I think they are going to maintain a neutral stance.”

She added: “The restaurant industry is not going to write policy.”

Alberts said she doubted the government would be able to impose any sort of policy requiring the industry to demand proof of vaccination “because they can’t even consult with us to find a solution to maintaining the integrity of the industry or supporting its sustainability”.

“How are they going to have a conversation with us about vaccines, if they can’t even have a conversation with us about Ters [the temporary employer/employee relief scheme] or about the UIF [Unemployment Insurance Fund]? They can’t have a conversation with us about the dinner-time trade and they can’t guarantee us that they are going to reopen the industry.”

Before the government can use the pandemic to create further policies, it needs to meaningfully consult the restaurant industry, Alberts said. “The industry has been decimated. And we need to engage with the government.”

(John McCann/M&G)

A balancing act

Cosatu parliamentary officer Matthew Parks said the trade union federation wholeheartedly supported the push to get South Africans vaccinated. “It is the best way to save people’s lives … It is the way we’re going to save this economy and create jobs.”

But, he added, South Africa is a constitutional democracy and people have the choice to decide whether they get jabbed. “We have advised our unions to protect anyone who is victimised as a consequence of refusing to get the vaccine.”

Parks called the vaccine push in workplaces “a bit of a balancing act”.

Business for South Africa (B4SA) chairperson Martin Kingston said the alliance believes employers have a significant role to play in the country’s vaccine roll-out, by encouraging their workers to get vaccinated and “the vaccine mandate that Discovery has announced is one way of doing that”.

“We recognise that there will be some people who will challenge it. We are seeing around the world that it is increasingly prevalent, not just for companies, but for governments as well, to require workers to be vaccinated in certain sectors,” Kingston said. “We hope that what Discovery has done will encourage other companies to do the same, obviously making sure that they follow due process.”

He said the possible blowback that could come with vaccine mandates is outweighed by the positive effects of getting as many people vaccinated as possible. “There are those who may challenge the constitutionality. Globally, we have significant and growing levels of mandating taking place.”

The restaurant industry, in particular, is clamouring for consultation. (Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

Innovation

Kingston and Parks confirmed that representatives at Nedlac have been figuring out ways to incentivise people to get vaccinated by requiring vaccine passports at large public events such as sports matches and concerts. Both said business and labour have been more or less aligned on these conversations.

Last week, after a cabinet meeting, Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele said President Cyril Ramaphosa had directed the executive “to look at all possible innovations that can assist in allowing more activities in the country”.

“The issue of vaccine passports is one [idea that will] be attended to as we look at the package of innovative ideas on how to set the country free — so that the economy can start flourishing,” Gungubele said.

Kingston said this week: “We have a number of very substantive discussions … Opening up events to people who can demonstrate they have been fully vaccinated is one way of stimulating an economic sector that has been very significantly impaired by lockdowns and by the pandemic. It is also a way of dramatically increasing the level of vaccination quickly.”

B4SA has not been happy with vaccination levels, he said. “That’s not because we don’t have either the vaccine or the ability to administer it, it is simply because we don’t have adequate demand. So we need to boost demand.” 

“If a way of accelerating demand is either to mandate vaccines or by creating a positive incentive,” said Kingston, “we think that’s going to have a very meaningful impact. We are very supportive of that.”

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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