September 14, 2021 | By Bronwen Largier

I was quite surprised a few weeks ago when micenet’s Joyce DiMascio uncovered the unwillingness of the events industry to mandate vaccinations amongst staff. I thought perhaps industry businesses were waiting for it to be made compulsory by Government.

While I’m not sure this sends the right message about us being masters of our own destiny, at a time when a strong industry stance would benefit us hugely, I put it down to the practicality of saving a lot of resource-draining internal bureaucracy, including potential legal difficulties and hard conversations with staff in organisations which are already stretched to the limit by the pandemic. Not ideal, but understandable, considering the challenges.

So, last week I was relieved when the NSW plan for reopening made full vaccination the ticket to freedom.

But things are already getting murky. Deputy Premier John Barilaro suggested on a radio interview with 2GB yesterday morning that once that state reached 80 percent vaccination, there would be no difference in freedoms between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

Later, at the now-sporadic 11am NSW press conference, Premier Gladys Berejiklian refuted this idea.

“I want to say very clearly that if you’re not vaccinated you will not have the freedom or the freedoms that vaccinated people have even when we get to 80 percent double dose.

“And it won’t only be government decision. A private business might choose only to welcome patrons who are vaccinated.”

But as we’ve seen in the UK over the weekend, Government stance on things like vaccine passports are also liable to change – quickly.

Perhaps it is time for us to take the lead. Because conversations with vaccine hesitant staff will be hard now and the same with legalities, but how is that conversation going to go with an unvaccinated staff member who has seeded an outbreak at your event? And what are your wider crisis communications going to look like when it gets into the media? And what are your lawyers going to say?

Because of course, the problem with not mandating vaccination amongst staff is that you won’t be able to mandate it amongst event attendees.

And, whether we like it or not, in the pandemic era, face-to-face events are an extreme sport. What we do – bringing large groups of people together and encouraging strangers to interact closely for an extended period of time – is one of the most dangerous activities with an immensely infectious disease quite literally in our midst. We only need to look at the stats from the NSW outbreak to understand why we need the helmet of protection that mandatory vaccination can provide.

In its latest weekly report – for the week ending August 21 – 11 percent of people with COVID-19 were hospitalised. Eighty-six percent of those hospitalised were either unvaccinated – the vast majority at over 73 percent – or partially vaccinated. Fully vaccinated people who were hospitalised accounted for only four and a half percent of those in hospital and just two fully vaccinated people were in the ICU, out of 248 admissions to the highest level of hospital care.

To put it starkly, if you have unvaccinated staff and attendees at your event and there is COVID around – which, if we reopen, there is likely to be – and transmission occurs, statistically speaking, at least one in every ten of those who is unvaccinated amongst your staff and guests is going to end up in hospital. And, it’s worth also pointing out, the highest hospitalisation rates in this set of data were found amongst those aged 50 to 59 – potentially senior executives or industry leaders in an event context – and those aged 20-29 – potentially your young talent.

During Meetings and Events Australia’s webinar last week with epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett, she highlighted overseas data that showed amongst those who were fully vaccinated, infection rates were down two thirds when compared to the unvaccinated. She pointed out that this also means for events where everyone is vaccinated, any outbreak is likely to be a third of the size of an outbreak amongst the unvaccinated. And if you combine this with the lower rate of serious illness amongst those who are fully vaccinated, what our industry does starts to seem less extreme, more well-padded.

For an industry obsessed with minimising risk, this kind of seems like a no-brainer. Staff and attendees with a 66 percent greater chance of keeping everyone safe and healthy? It’s hard to argue against that.

And while the implementation of this will be difficult – although let’s face it, the months, possibly years, ahead are likely to be difficult for the industry – the upside is what we crave – greater certainty. In a time where our industry has been at the whim of nature and Government restrictions, measures like this give our industry an opportunity to seize back some of our own control.

And we are seeing mandatory vaccination happen in event contexts. Informa has introduced vaccine passports for some of its health events and it has restarted bookings. And in the USA – one of the most vaccine-divided countries globally – IMEX America has just made full vaccination a condition of participation of its November event, saying that is becoming industry best practice across the nation, even one where views on vaccination are immensely polarised.

And major Australian businesses with a stake in the visitor economy are also beginning to mandate vaccinations for staff – two major airlines, a hotel group and a hotel and a major venue, that we’ve heard of so far.

Of course, it all needs to start with a conversation, which may get most staff there, if they’re not already.

So let’s start talking.