Anti-vax professionals – a prickly issue?

As the race to increase Covid-19 vaccination rates heats up and deadlines for sweeping new vaccine mandates loom, we are increasingly hearing stories about professionals who hold and spread, anti-vaccination views.

No profession seems to be immune: midwives, doctors, teachers, and lawyers have all made the news for strong anti-vaccination views.

These vocal professionals can pose a real conundrum for both professional regulators and employers.

On one hand, everyone has the right to choose not to have the vaccine and to hold and share opinions on it. These rights are enshrined in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

On the other hand, all professionals have certain obligations set out in their governing codes, rules, or legislation. These may require them to take – or refrain from taking – certain actions regarding their views on the vaccine.

Some regulators have already published specific guidance regarding the Covid-19 vaccine. The Medical and Dental Councils have stated that they expect all dental and medical practitioners will take up the opportunity to be vaccinated. The Social Workers Registration Board has published guidance for social workers on social media and Covid-19 vaccination messages.

Even in the absence of specific guidance, there are many ways in which anti-vaccination professionals may breach existing professional rules and guidelines and find themselves off-side with their regulatory body for taking an actively anti-vaccination stance.

Situations where professionals holding anti-vaccination views may overstep the line include:

  • Not acting in their client’s best interests. Most professionals have general obligations to act in their client’s best interests, which may be breached if they put their own views on the vaccine above their client’s best interests. 
  • Spreading vaccine misinformation. Most professionals have obligations of honesty and integrity which could be breached by intentionally spreading misinformation about the vaccine, particularly in a professional setting.
  • Disrespectful comments regarding other people’s views or vaccine status. Many professionals have obligations to be respectful and courteous which might be breached by disparaging comments. In the online setting, comments may breach specific professional standards or guidelines on social media use.
  • Misusing their professional position and status to encourage others not to get vaccinated.  This is likely to be a particular concern where there is a power imbalance between the professional and their client.
  • Giving medical advice regarding the vaccine when not qualified to do so. For health practitioners, this may constitute acting outside their scope of practice, which is a ground for discipline.
  • Misleading or lying about their vaccine status, which may breach obligations of honesty and integrity.  
  • Failing to follow the law. Whether it results in a conviction or not, intentionally failing to follow the law, including complying with mandates or public health orders (including masking) may breach professional obligations by bringing discredit to the profession.

These are complex issues which are constantly changing as the Covid-19 landscape in New Zealand shifts. Our health law team can help regulators and professionals navigate these issues.

Need more information? Talk to one of our health law experts.

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