Up to 6000 constabulary staff had received at least one Covid-19 vaccine jab by the end of August.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told the Justice Select Committee last month that 56 per cent of constabulary had been given one dose and 38 per cent had received both doses.
After several months of complaints and lobbying from Police staff and the Police Association to point out that frontline police especially should already be fully vaccinated, the arrival of the Delta variant of Covid-19 in New Zealand finally focused attention on the matter.
Questions were asked in Parliament and the public was as stunned as police had been to find out that, for the purposes of vaccination, frontline officers were not classed as first responders in Group 2 but were lumped in with the general public aged over 30 years old in Group 4.
Association president Chris Cahill says it was a debate that should never have had to happen during the outbreak of the more virulent Delta strain of Covid-19. It left him “angry and frustrated that frontline staff were put at risk unnecessarily by poor decisions made by Cabinet and the Ministry of Health (MoH)”.
“We had already identified frontline police as an issue at the very start when priorities were being made for vaccinations. That police weren’t put into Group 2 with other frontline workers and first responders was unfair to police staff and their families,” he says.
“That this was worth fighting for has become abundantly clear now as, once again, we see police at the front of the response to policing the pandemic.”
The risk for unvaccinated staff working in the Covid environment continues to be highlighted with, for example, cases of people spitting at police and coughing on them.
The association was heartened to have received support on the issue from several influential community leaders and former Police College wing patrons who issued a joint media statement urging that police officers receive their Covid-19 vaccines “on a war footing”.
It’s been frustrating for Police too, says Superintendent Mel Aitken, Police’s director Safer People. She stresses that Police had been pushing to prioritise staff, but was only able to work within the parameters set by the MoH and the Government.
Police working in border roles such as in MIQ were part of Group 1, with 1800 initially vaccinated (and their families). “MedPro managed to squeeze a further 500 staff into the initial Group 1 to ensure there were sufficient numbers when factoring in staff rotation through the MIQs.”
MedPro then had to wait for the green light from the MoH before it could start scheduling jabs for the rest of police. The approval came through in mid-July, slightly ahead of the public Group 4 rollout, Mel says. “That’s when we began work with MedPro to set up clinics across the country at a variety of sites, including police stations.”
The figures given by the commissioner last month include police from Group 1 and those who have received their first or second dose in the past month. The numbers are probably somewhat higher but capturing data of those vaccinated outside the MedPro programme is problematic. Staff are being asked to let Police know if that is the case.
She notes that the arrival of Delta has “changed the playing field” and that while the vaccine “is not a golden elixir, it certainly adds to our staff toolbox as another control measure on top of the good hygiene protocols we already have”.
There have been no notifications of Covid-19 being contracted by staff through operational activities, she says.
Mel acknowledges that staff may also be feeling concerned for family members who are not yet vaccinated. They are not yet able to join the MedPro rollout, but some could be covered in the Government’s expanded “essential workers” category, for which clinics are now being set up around the country.
Police has also been reiterating to staff the necessity of wearing the N95 mask and gloves for any operations outside the station or office.
Meanwhile, the question of why officers were not given priority for inoculation is still unanswered. The association has been fighting this issue on behalf of members since late April. Chris Cahill has raised it with Police Minister Poto Williams on several occasions and made public pleas for answers.
Last month, the minister appeared before the Justice Select Committee and was asked if she had lobbied for police officers to be given higher priority for vaccination.
Her answer was oblique: “I raise matters with my Cabinet colleagues all the time.” She added: “I would like for us to be able to flick a switch and for everybody to be vaccinated… Police at the frontline were prioritised at a time when we were constrained in terms of the numbers of vaccines that were available in the country.”