Grounded Air NZ pilots back on deck as non-Pfizer jabs recognised

Source: 1News

A group of Air New Zealand pilots stood down from work after getting a non-Pfizer vaccine overseas are now back on the flight deck after the Government amended the Border Order to recognise several other Covid-19 vaccines.

Air New Zealand plane (file picture).

On October 12, Air New Zealand told 1News it was in “urgent talks” with the Government after the pilots were removed from the roster because the Border Order only recognised the Pfizer vaccine.

"As a personal choice, while on a tour of duty, a small number of our pilots arranged to receive the Janssen vaccine in the United States," said Air New Zealand chief operations officer, Carrie Hurihanganui, on Tuesday.

"Air New Zealand recognises these pilots as being fully vaccinated and have been in urgent talks with the Government over an exemption or change in the order to allow these pilots to continue operating. While we await confirmation, these pilots are not flying.”

Despite being approved by MedSafe, the Janssen vaccine, along with several others, had not been recognised by the Government for border workers.

But the Ministry of Health updated the Border Order this week, adding a new section which now recognises AstraZeneca, Moderna and Janssen vaccines.

Until now, the Ministry of Health and Air New Zealand have been tight-lipped about the change. It comes after a week of questions from 1News to the ministry and Air New Zealand about when the order would be updated.

“We had 10 pilots vaccinated with Janssen who are now back in the flight deck – as of last Monday,” an Air New Zealand spokesperson said on Saturday.

It’s a welcome u-turn to those in the industry after weeks of red tape forced some to take four jabs just to keep their jobs and endure weeks off the roster while the order was reviewed.

“The Janssen vaccine is a recognised vaccine for all those entering New Zealand through MIQ but isn’t recognised for border workers," the ministry said on October 12.

“This means those arriving from overseas via MIQ are considered vaccinated if they have had one dose of the Janssen vaccine.

“However, for those who work at the border, Pfizer is the only recognised vaccine to meet the current Border Order requirements. Work is underway to consider other vaccines, including Janssen, for this purpose,” a ministry spokesperson said at the time. 

A border worker 1News spoke to in early October said some pilots elected to have the Pfizer vaccine once back in New Zealand, in addition to having had the Moderna vaccine offshore.

The source, who wanted to remain anonymous, said some pilots have had four jabs "just to avoid the situation of putting their jobs at risk".

The ministry told 1News back on October 9 that the Border Order will be amended to recognise other vaccines for workers.

“When the Vaccinations Order became law on 30 April 2021 Pfizer/BioNTech was the only Covid-19 vaccine to have received provisional approval by Medsafe. It was named in the Order as the vaccine border workers covered by the Order were required to receive in order to be compliant.

"An amendment to the legislation is required to have other vaccines recognised for border work subject to the Order,” a ministry spokesperson said.

"The Covid-19 Response Minister has agreed a move in policy to allow those falling within the requirements of the Order to be vaccinated with a vaccine other than Pfizer. 

"The Ministry of Health is in the process of making necessary amendments to the current Order for Ministers to consider and approve in the coming week.”

After weeks of waiting, it means pilots who were grounded are now flying again.

New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association says vaccine choice an issue for some

Captain Andrew Ridling, president of the New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association (NZALPA), met with Transport Minister Michael Wood in early October to discuss the issue.

"The Minister of Transport was aware of the issue across his portfolio and undertook to discuss the wider issue with the Covid-19 Response Minister. It was pleasing to see that there was some flexibility in policy with the changes that we have been signalled.

"Without these changes to the order, pilots’ employment is being placed in jeopardy," Ridling said in early October. 

Ridling told 1News on Saturday he understood the change to the Border Order came into effect on Monday. He said it was fast-tracked after ALPA raised the anomaly with Wood, who in turn went to Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, who agreed to the change.

"It’s good news because there’s now the availability for pilots to continue working having had different vaccines," Ridling said. 

"It now allows those pilots based offshore to come home and be employed. Anyone working on the international border had to have the Pfizer vaccine.

“We raised the issue but we wouldn’t have been the only ones,” he said.

“International pilots are 99 per cent vaccinated because they are able to have a vaccine of choice.

“What we found is that choice was an important part of getting to such high numbers,” Ridling said.