Cabinet on 14 February 2023 endorsed that the Health and Safety at Work (General Workplace Conditions) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (2021 Amendment Regulations) in relation to the “No Jab, No Job” regulations be revoked. Such revocation will be effective from the date the same is published in the Gazette.

The COVID-19 global pandemic greatly affected small island developing countries such as Fiji and greatly impacted the working populations, both in the formal and informal sectors.

Fiji confirmed its first COVID-19 case on 19th March 2020. In response, the Government initiated a whole of government and whole of society response with the Ministry of Health and Medical Services (Min. of Health) as the lead agency. Critical components of the initial response were border control measures, targeted public health measures including restrictions of movement and gathering, lockdowns, enhancement of diagnostic treatment and surveillance capacities for Min. of Health, and budgetary supplements from Government. Collaboration and partnership with development partners, civil society organisations, and donors greatly complemented Fiji’s response actions.

At the workplace level, the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic also affected workers (including their families) and employers (including their businesses) through work adjustments, change in terms and conditions of employment and job losses.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the health system of so many developed and developing nations to a brink of collapse within months of its outbreak and Fiji was not spared. Therefore, essential aspects of infection, prevention and hygiene promotion had to be maintained and sustained to ensure a healthy working population.

Following the initial outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergency dashboard on COVID -19 recorded Fiji’s first case of the COVID-19 delta variant on 5th April 2021.

After a careful analysis of the health situation and the status of employers and workers in Fiji, the Government through collaboration with its relevant agencies and National Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Board (NOHSAB) tripartite partners recommended to Cabinet to formulate a policy for mandatory vaccination in the workplace.

The main objective of the 2021 Amendment Regulations was to protect employers, workers including others (contractors, customers and visitors etc.) from any risk of COVID-19 or related virus transmission at the workplace. The COVID-19 pandemic was seen as a threat to national health and to socioeconomic development, and vaccination was a measure that protected against severe disease, reduce disease transmission and to facilitate Fiji’s recovery.

The 2021 Amendment Regulations awareness was aimed at strengthening the understanding; knowledge and influence of employers, workers and workplace duty holders on their responsibilities as stipulated under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1996 (HASAWA 1996).

According to the 2021 Amendment Regulations, in order for the employers and workers to continue working and maintain access to their workplaces, they were required to have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by 1 August 2021 and the second dose before 1 November 2021. As stipulated under the 2021 Amendment Regulations, the only exemptions for vaccinations applied to workers under the age of 18 years or for legitimate medical reasons.

To implement the requirements of the 2021 Amendment Regulations the Ministry of Employment, Productivity and Industrial Relations (MEPIR) conducted a workplace audit targeting all workplaces Fiji wide. The main objective of the audit was to determine the vaccination details and status of all employers and workers at each workplace.

The total workforce audited was 120,196 (employers and workers), of which 99.75% had received the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 99.72% were fully vaccinated. The workforce audited comprised of 17,333 employers out of which 99.92% had received their first dose of the vaccine and 99.84% had received their second dose of the vaccine, and 102,863 workers out of which 99.72% had received their first dose of the vaccine and 99.70% had received their second dose of the vaccine.

The second phase of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a huge impact on the working population. From the 2021 Amendment Regulations audit report, most of the workers remained on the payroll, the highest numbers of affected workers were those that were on reduced hours, compared to those on unpaid leave, redundancy, working from home and child labour issues. For non-compliant workplaces, 36 workplaces were temporarily closed through the issuance of prohibition notices and 5 workplaces were issued the relevant penalties. Of the total notices issued, requisition notice accounts for 66%, prohibition notice 16% (closure of business), rescinding notice 10% (reopening of closed business), improvement notice 6% and penalty notice 2% of the total notice issued. Most of the prohibition notices were issued due to non-compliance to Part 14A of the 2021 Amendment Regulations on COVID-19 vaccination. The penalty notices were issued after verification that some workplaces continued to engage employers and workers that were not vaccinated.

The total number unvaccinated civil servants was 450 and accounts for 1.70% of the total civil service workforce. Therefore, 98.30% of the civil service workforce have been fully vaccinated.

The total number of unvaccinated civil servants terminated was 341 which is 75.7% of the total number of unvaccinated civil servants.

The total number of civil servants exempted was 109 and accounts for 0.41% of the civil service workforce and 24.3% total number of unvaccinated civil servants.

The Government set a target of 80% or eligible adult population aged 18 years and over to have received their second dose of the vaccine by 1 November 2021. The campaign strategy and effort intensified with fixed and mobile vaccination stations set up throughout the country to vaccinate the eligible population. By 4 September 2021, 566,210 individuals (96.5%) had received the first dose of the vaccine and 299,943 had received their second doses (51.1%) of the vaccine. Fiji had achieved 80% second dose coverage 23 days earlier than the target of 1 November 2021.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 vaccination programme, a total of 104.2% of the eligible target population had received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 95.5% received the second dose of the primary series.

The rapid escalation in coverage rates of the first 2 doses of the vaccine saw a marked reduction in hospitalization, severe disease and deaths due to COVID-19 in the Western and Northern divisions compared to the Central division during the acute Delta wave in mid-2021. A single cross-sectional serosurvey funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through the National Critical Care and Trauma Response was carried out from 24 November 2021 to 1 December 2021. This study demonstrated a high level of immunity in participants above the age of 18 years in the Central and Western divisions of Fiji during late November 2021 and early December 2021. Population wide protection against severe outcomes of COVID-19 was experienced when hospitalisation, severe disease and deaths due to COVID-19 remained low despite the wide spread of the virus from December 2021 to February 2022, from July to August 2022 and more recently in December 2022. Furthermore, the divisional hospitals reported lower numbers of COVID-19 positive cases despite the three waves which supported the contention that COVID-19 safe measures reduced transmission of the virus when implemented within a highly vaccinated environment.

The Min. of Health COVID-19 vaccination program in terms of booster dosage and vaccination of children continues as a voluntary vaccination program. As of 23 January 2023, up to 90% of Fiji population over the age of 12 years are protected with two doses of the WHO endorsed COVID-19 vaccine.

Since the introduction of the Booster dose programme on 30 November 2021, a total of 54.6% have received a first booster while 9.3% have received the second booster dose. COVID-19 vaccines remain the most critical tool against severe illness, hospitalisation and death by the highly transmissible and deadly disease.

The GWC audit findings revealed that by 30 November, 2021 the workplace vaccinations directly contributed to the national vaccination rate of 97.6% for the first dose of COVID-19 vaccination and 91.8% fully vaccinated by 21 December 2021.

From the Min. of Health perspective, the 2021 Amendment Regulations helped to facilitate a broader level of community wide vaccination. As of the 23 of January 2023 more than 95% of Fiji’s adult population (above the age of 18 years) have been vaccinated.

The results of the GWC 2021 audit reflected provides a positive outlook on the status of immunisation of employers and workers in Fiji and complemented the information provided by Min. of Health on the immunization status of the total population of Fiji. Therefore, the objectives of the national policy on vaccination in the workplace were achieved as stipulated under the 2021 Amendment Regulations.

The rapid attainment of high levels of protection against COVID-19 have allowed for the safe opening of Fiji’s borders and helped to facilitate early and sustained socio-economic recovery.

One of the key controversies in public health is the extent to which Government can and should restrict individual freedom for the purpose of improving communities’ health. The COVID-19 pandemic had created an unprecedented medical emergency with widely publicised consequences both in terms of the disease itself and the effects of COVID Safe measures on socioeconomic wellbeing. The vaccine was scientifically proven to be able to mitigate these consequences. As such the implementation of vaccine mandates was seen as a means to facilitate better disease control in a timely manner with less severe disease outcomes and rapid return to conditions that allow for rebuilding the nation’s socio-economic space.

Most countries who had mandated COVID-19 vaccination laws have recently either revoked or reviewed their mandatory COVID-19 vaccination laws after the transmission of the COVID-19 virus has been satisfactorily managed.

For Fiji, the findings of the 2021 Amendment Regulations audit highlights the high immunization status of employers and workers in Fiji. The objectives of the 2021 Amendment Regulations on vaccination in the workplace have been achieved.

The implementation of the 2021 Amendment Regulations was deemed a necessity at the height of the pandemic to protect human rights such as the right to life and to health and safety. The 2021 Amendment Regulations has achieved its intended purpose therefore, can now be subject to review.

The Min. of Health has provided serological and epidemiological data that indicate that Fiji has attained widespread protection in terms of severe outcomes. Transmission reduction has also been demonstrated within fully vaccinated divisional hospital settings.

As a proactive measure, the Min. of Health will continue to push for the booster dose through a number of initiatives that includes:

· Face to face education, awareness, broadcast and webinar sessions with the businesses/employers and workers for workplace booster vaccination;

· Collaboration and launching of tailored campaigns with vulnerable workforces including the tourism sector, frontline workers at the border, airline workers, seafarers and other networks; and

· Promote and provision of information on vaccination and vaccination sites.

The COVID-19 booster programme will contribute towards the improvement of health and safety of the general public, employers and workers in turn contribute to sustainable societal and economic recovery.