Union: Tauranga Port staff 'frustrated' over Covid contact

Source: 1News

The Maritime Union says Tauranga Port workers are “frustrated” about a series of decisions that led to staff encountering Covid-19-positive crew of the Rio De La Plata container ship. 

Yesterday, the Ministry of Health confirmed 98 Tauranga Port staff had contact with 11 of the container ship’s crew who had contracted the virus. The contact happened while staff were unloading cargo in shifts when the Rio De La Plata was berthed at the Port of Tauranga last Wednesday to Saturday.

110 of the port workers and others have so far tested negative for Covid-19 . More test results are expected later today. 

The Maritime Union’s Victor Billot told Breakfast there was “concern” and “frustration” among Tauranga Port workers. 

While the workers at Tauranga weren’t union members, Billot said what had happened was a concern for the whole industry. 

RNZ reported that on August 3, Maritime New Zealand told the Port of Tauranga a pilot who had been in Queensland had boarded the Rio De La Plata two weeks ago. That pilot recently tested positive for Covid-19. 

The ship was then cleared for berthing that day. A few hours later, Customs told staff to isolate at home and await further instructions.

The next day, the Port of Tauranga said authorities had told them operations could continue. That advice changed again on Monday when workers were told to get tested. 

“Everyone’s still trying to get to the bottom of the actual process which led to this unfortunate incident, and we can’t have it happening again,” Billot said. 

“A repetition of that could be disastrous.”

Billot said he understood that it was health officials that gave the green light for workers to be able to go back onto the container ship. 

“There was a little bit of confusion about who was giving the orders and, obviously there has been a miscommunication there.” 

This confusion was especially unhelpful at a time when authorities were meant to be building trust amid low vaccination rates among port workers in some locations, Billot added. 

He said a number of factors had led to Tauranga Port having one of the lowest vaccination rates against Covid-19 among its port workers. This included a large casual workforce who were younger and largely not unionised. 

Billot said many staff had “valid concerns” about the vaccine, but that it was “all being mixed up with conspiracy theories”.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there … we’ve come up against that and we’re trying to overcome that. But, it may take the message being delivered in a different way to those groups of workers. 

“A much more one-on-one, personal approach where maybe a public health worker or nurse can talk them through their concerns right there in the workplace,” he said.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, who appeared on Breakfast after Billot, agreed that misinformation had led to low vaccination rates at the ports. 

He said many port workers were getting inaccurate information about vaccines on social media, from their friends and from leaflets in their letterboxes. 

This led to a “high degree of resistance” to the vaccine, he said. 

Health authorities were now arranging for health professionals to speak with workers one-on-one, Hipkins said. 

“That’s a very time-consuming process, though, and we are doing that at every port throughout the country quite intensively at the moment to get those rates up. But, misinformation has been a real problem at our ports.” 

Hipkins said people who were spreading misinformation were causing “enormous harm”. 

“The information is wrong, it’s not based in science or in fact. They are causing harm that could potentially lead to catastrophic consequences for people, including their death.

“So, and I can’t underscore this enough, get your information about vaccines from a trusted source.”

The National Party revealed yesterday 60 per cent of the Bay of Plenty's port employees are not vaccinated.

Leading epidemiologist Michael Baker said crew on cargo ships coming into New Zealand was "a huge area of vulnerability".

"We could put a lot more effort into it and turning down this risk," he said. 

"The Delta variant is very unforgiving, it only takes fleeting contact, particularly in a poor ventilated indoor environment."

Victor Billot says a series of decisions led to 98 port staff encountering Covid-positive crew on the container ship.

From August 26, all border workers must be vaccinated or risk their employment, even those working for private companies.