Resources

Learn about your human rights in relation to Covid-19

Even in times of crisis, people have human rights that safeguard their dignity. Even in times of emergency, human rights place binding obligations upon the Government to abide by commitments they have made. The Government has obligations to limit the spread of Covid-19, but restrictions must be necessary, proportionate and respectful of human dignity. The Government has Te Tiriti o Waitangi and human rights obligations to protect people’s economic and social rights, as well as their civil and political rights.

This page addresses some frequently asked questions about Covid–19 and your rights. It also points to guidance issued by government agencies about your rights under privacy, employment and health and safety legislation.

As the nature of Covid-19 continues to evolve, so too will the Government response. Many of these issues will be considered by the courts now and in the future. Therefore this guidance may change.

The following information is only intended as a guide and is not legal advice.

Resources

The Commission has released a series of briefings on the human rights and Tiriti implications of the Government’s new Covid-19 Protection Framework to aid the public and policy makers. The Briefings are available here:

FAQs

Balancing human rights in a Covid environment

The Government measures to combat Covid-19 are extraordinary and place significant restrictions on New Zealanders’ human rights. Even during a pandemic, everyone has human rights and freedoms under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act. However, there are times when limiting these rights and freedoms can be justified under section 5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

The Covid-19 pandemic raises complex questions about when these restrictions are justified, and where the balance lies between individual rights and freedoms and the right to health, which includes public health and safety. The right to health is a human right protected under both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which New Zealand is a State party to. In fact under the ICESCR, States must take necessary steps to prevent, treat and control epidemic diseases in order to realise the right to health. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN treaty body for the ICESCR, has emphasised that States must ensure public health measures are reasonable and proportionate to protect all human rights.

The High Court recently held that the COVID-19 Public Health Response (Vaccination) Order 2021, requiring the vaccination of border workers, complies with the Bill of Rights and is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. The Court held that the vaccine is safe and effective, significantly beneficial in preventing COVID19 significantly reduces serious illness, hospitalisation and death and is likely to materially assist in preventing the risk of an outbreak or the spread of COVID-19. However, the Court also affirmed the importance of protecting rights and enabling access to justice to those who consider their rights have been breached by such measures. See Four Aviation Security Service Employees v Minister of COVID-19 Response [2021] NZHC 3012 at [24] and [143]. Read more.

This approach to balancing rights will of course depend on the particular issue and context. For example, the Human Rights Act applies differently to public decision-makers compared to private entities, such as businesses. What is ultimately important is that human rights guide decision-making, whether by government decision-makers or businesses. The Human Rights Commission encourages businesses, service providers and employers to seek legal advice to ensure their Covid-19 policies do not breach the rights of others.

Disability

Do I hold onto my rights in an emergency?

The government has a responsibility to take all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of disabled people. As a disabled person you have the right to be free from discrimination. This might require government or businesses to make different arrangements to make sure you are not worse off during the response and recovery, and that you do not face barriers in accessing the information or support you are entitled to. For example, supermarkets have developed a way for you to indicate you need to be given priority access to online grocery orders and deliveries. You can find other services and support available here at the Ministry of Social Development. You are entitled to ask for reasonable accommodation so that these services are accessible for you. You can find a lot of useful information on the Covid-19 section of the Disabled Persons Assembly website. If you receive disability support, you have the right to feel safe and know what guidance workers are being given about Personal Protective Equipment(PPE). The Ministry of Health has updated its advice on the use of face coverings.

Do I have the right to get information in accessible formats? (Participation Article 4.3 CRPD)

Yes. Everyone has the right to reliable information about the pandemic, about how to keep safe, and about how to access services and supports that are available to assist people. You have the right to have information in accessible formats that work for you. Article 9 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Government has created an accessible information hub. d some key information in accessible formats here including in Easy Read here. If you cannot find the information you need in an accessible format you can contact [email protected]

Do I still have the right to have a say in decisions that affect me, for example about who can visit me?

Everyone has a right to be involved in decisions about things that affect them. This is still the case during the Covid-19 recovery. In fact, that is the best way to develop solutions that are culturally appropriate for you and take account of people in many different situations. If you receive a disability support service, you should be involved in the decisions about how you continue to receive support and how that will be done safely. Tāngata Whaikaha (Māori disabled people) have the right to be linked to both Māori and disability response teams.

The Code of Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers' Rights still applies during an emergency, so you have the right to respect and to information to make an informed choice.

If this is not happening, you can complain to contact the Health and Disability Commission here.

I live in a disability care home and they’ve told me my family can’t visit me until the lockdown is over. Can they do that?

The Ministry of Health has instructed disability and aged care facilities to stop all non-essential services and family visits. This is because people with disabilities can be more vulnerable to Covid-19, and care facilities are particularly susceptible to the rapid transmission of viruses. Even though your family can’t visit you in person, you should still be able to contact your friends and family over the phone or through video calls. Unless you have been diagnosed or are suspected to have Covid-19, or there are cases in your residential facility, you should still be able to do most of your daily routine. If you do get sick with the virus, staff will isolate you in your room to make sure it doesn’t spread to other people. You should still have enough nutritious food, access to hygiene facilities (and assistance in showering or other activities, if necessary), access to medical treatment, and the ability to call your family while you are in isolation.

Can I seek reasonable accommodation from my employer, for example, to continue to work from home?

Disabled employees should enjoy all of the protections provided to any employee (see the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment’s website). But you also have the right to reasonable accommodation, which means that as a disabled employee you can seek changes to work arrangements that would make work safe and accessible for you. For example, if your impairment or other health condition makes it less safe for you to return to work premises when other employees are permitted to do so you could seek an accommodation to continue working from home.

I am a disabled student. Do I have to return to school if I think it would compromise my health or that of someone in my family?

Disabled people have the right to access education on an equal basis with others. Students have the right to the reasonable supports they need to thrive academically and that includes accessible learning resources if you believe your health would best be protected by continuing your learning at home when schools reopen. The Ministry of Education has information for students and whānau.

Employment

(See Vaccines for FAQs about vaccines in employment)

Does the Government need to ensure employees have the right to safe working conditions during Covid-19?

Employees have the right to work and to enjoy safe and healthy working conditions. This includes the ability to make a decent living for themselves and their families. Duties to provide safe and healthy working conditions are primarily set out under New Zealand law in the Health and Safety and Work Act 2015 and the Holidays Act 2003. Guidance for employees, employers and businesses, and financial support is available at the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.

Do employers have human rights obligations towards their employees during Covid-19?

Employees have the right to be free from discrimination including on the grounds of disability, age, nationality or ethnicity or migration status. The Employment Relations Act 2000 and the Human Rights Act 1993 provide protections from discrimination in employment. If an employee considers their rights have been breached or have been discriminated against, they can take action through a personal grievance claim or a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. The business sector also has a responsibility to protect human rights during this crisis, as set out under the United Nations Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights and highlighted by UN Experts recently.

Can my employer tell my coworkers about my Covid-19 diagnosis even if I don’t give them permission to share it?

Under the Privacy Act there is a general obligation not to use or disclose personal information, unless an exception applies. There are exceptions that permit disclosure, including where you believe the disclosure is necessary to prevent or lessen the risk of a serious threat to someone’s safety, wellbeing or health. Under this exception, when dealing with an employee who may have contracted a highly contagious disease, it may be necessary for an employer to advise other employees so they can monitor themselves for possible symptoms and, if needed, go into self-isolation. You can talk to your employer about what details they will share. For example, your work colleagues might need to know whether you are in hospital or at home, so that they can plan their own work and make sure your job is covered. You can find out more information about your privacy rights from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

What if I feel unsafe at work?

The government has published guidelines for how workplaces should operate at different Alert levels. If you believe your employer is not protecting the health and safety of workers, customers or other people who visit the workplace, you have rights under the Health and Safety at Work Act. See Worksafe’s website for more information.

Disabled employees also have the right to reasonable accommodation. This means a disabled employee can seek changes to work arrangements that would make work safe and accessible. For example, if your impairment or other health condition makes it less safe for you to return to work you could seek an accommodation to continue working from home. You can read more in our Reasonable Accommodation Guide.

Face-coverings

What are my human rights when it comes to face-coverings?

Under Alert levels above 1 face coverings are mandatory for most people visiting and working in businesses and services. We have human rights and responsibilities to our whānau, neighbours, workers, and wider communities. Putting on a face-covering is one of these obligations that comes with our human rights responsibilities to each other.

Can I be refused service or access to a public place if I am not wearing a mask?

The government has made it mandatory to wear face coverings in certain contexts. During Alert Level 1, you must legally wear a face covering on public transport and flights. During Alert Levels 2, 3 and 4 you must also wear a face covering when visiting shops, businesses, and other public venues.

This means that, depending on the Alert Level, businesses and services have the right to refuse people who are not wearing face coverings. There are exceptions to this (see below).

Section 21B of the Human Rights Act states that when a person or organisation takes actions that are required by law, then those actions are not unlawful under the discrimination provisions under Part 2 of the Act (which applies to people, businesses, and organisations outside the public or government sector). Essentially this places responsibility on the Government that makes the laws, rather than on the people who follow them.

In the context of face coverings or other public health measures, this means that if a business or service provider is correctly applying and following the rules in the Public Health Response Order, their actions are unlikely to be unlawful under the Act. Legislation and policy made by Government can, however, be challenged under the Act.

I can’t wear a face covering for health reasons. Can I be refused service or access to a public place?

The Public Health Response Order is clear that if someone has a physical or mental illness, condition or disability that makes wearing a face-covering unsuitable, then they do not have to.

People in this situation can get an exemption card to show when needed. To request a card, contact the Disabled Persons Assembly NZ by calling 04 801 9100 or emailing [email protected].

People with face covering exemptions still have the right to visit supermarkets, healthcare, and other businesses and services without wearing a face covering.

If you think you have faced unlawful discrimination, you can make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. The Commission can help with advice and information and, in some cases, offer a dispute resolution process for complaints.

Do I have to wear a face covering if I object for other reasons, for example my personal beliefs?

People who object to face coverings due to their personal beliefs cannot get face covering exemptions. Exemptions are only provided to people who cannot wear face coverings for health reasons.

The Human Rights Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against people because of their political opinion or religious belief (or any other protected ground in the Act).

The Human Rights Act does not define 'political opinion’. However, New Zealand courts have interpreted it to primarily apply to party political matters. As such the definition is unlikely to extend to someone’s personal preferences or views on face coverings.

Someone who holds a religious belief that prevents them from wearing a face covering may be able to object on religious grounds. Generally, someone making a claim on religious grounds would need to show their belief is sincere and connected to an established religion, rather than a personally held belief.

If you think you have faced unlawful discrimination, you can make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. The Commission can check whether the specific circumstances of a complaint fall under the Human Rights Act, and in some cases, offer a dispute resolution process for complaints.

I have a face covering exemption. Can businesses treat me differently from other customers?

People with face covering exemptions due to their health or disability still have the right to visit businesses and public places without wearing a face covering.

To minimise the risk of harm to staff, customers and others, a business may offer different service options for people without face coverings. For example, a service station may ask people without face coverings to pay at the outside window rather than entering the store, or a supermarket may ask someone without a face covering to use a self-checkout.

However, if a disabled person has a mask exemption due to their disability, then businesses should allow them to access their services on the same terms as non-disabled people with masks, unless in the circumstances the business could not reasonably be expected to do so. To refuse service or provide service on more onerous terms could constitute unlawful discrimination under the Human Rights Act. See the information above regarding mask exemptions.

The concept of ‘reasonable accommodation’ is relevant here. Generally, this means that organisations are required to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of a disabled person. What is ‘reasonable’ in any situation depends on factors including the legal provisions that may apply, the facts of a particular case, any costs involved, and whether the required actions could pose a risk to other people. You can read more in our Reasonable Accommodation Guide.

What are the government’s obligations when it comes to face-coverings?

The Government has Te Tiriti o Waitangi and human rights obligations to protect people’s economic and social rights, as well as their civil and political rights.

The government is obliged to make every possible effort, within available resources, to achieve the right to health for everyone, in a non-discriminatory way, including restricting human rights in a public health emergency.

Mandating the user of face-coverings is justified as long as restrictions are legal, necessary, reasonable and based on scientific evidence. It is not a breach of one’s human right to be required to wear a face-covering.

Anyone without an exemption should ensure they are wearing a face-covering when they leave home or are at work. Face coverings can help reduce the spread of Covid-19.

Family Violence

What should I do if I find myself in an abusive situation during Covid-19 isolation?

Covid-19 has heightened the risks for those most vulnerable to family violence especially women, children, disabled and rainbow people and those from our ethnic-minority communities. Isolation does not mean that you should tolerate violence. Please reach out to Women's Refuge (for women and children) on 0800 733 843, Shine (for all genders) on 0508-744-633 and dial 111 for Police.

It isn’t safe for me to reach out for help because my abuser lives with me. What can I do?

If your bubble isn’t safe, please seek help immediately. Women’s Refuge offers a discrete shielded support site that can be accessed at the bottom of websites like The Warehouse, Countdown and Trade Me which contains information about how to get help, get out of a situation or make a plan to leave. The website will not appear in your browser history. Look for an icon at the bottom of these websites that looks like this:

What should I do if I feel stressed, anxious and fear that I might lose control and take it out on my family?

Losing a job, a business, hours of work, sleep and connections with friends can greatly increase stress and anxiety. However they do not justify abusive or violent behavior. If you are feeling stressed out and feel you might lose control and harm someone at home, the best thing you can do is talk to somebody. Don't hesitate, don't be whakama. Seek help now by calling the 0800HeyBro helpline on 0800 439 276, Gandhi Nivas on 0800 426 344 or the family violence information line on 0800 456 450 to find out about local services.

What should I do if I think someone is being abused within their homes?

If you are worried about someone in your street, whānau or community who might be vulnerable, please do not ignore what you hear, see and feel. Keep the lines of communication open and encourage them to seek help sooner rather than later. You can also dial 111 for Police.

Are there any other organisations that I could reach out for help?

  • 211 Helpline (0800 211 211) – for help finding, and direct transfer to, community-based health and social support services in your area.

  • Victim Support – call 0800 842 846. 24-hour service for all victims of serious crime.

  • Victim Information Line/Victim Centre – call 0800 650 654 or email [email protected]

  • Family violence information line – call 0800 456 450 to find out about local services or how to help someone near you.

  • Elder Abuse Helpline – call 0800 32 668 65 (0800 EA NOT OK) - a 24-hour service answered by registered nurses who can connect to local elder abuse specialist providers.

  • Tu Wahine Trust – call 09 838 8700 for kaupapa Māori counselling, therapy and support for survivors of sexual harm (mahi tukino) and violence within whānau.

  • Shakti New Zealand – call 0800 742 584 for culturally competent support services for women, children and families of Asian, African and Middle Eastern origin who have experienced domestic violence.

  • Safe to Talk – sexual harm helpline. Call 0800 044 334, text 4334 or email [email protected]

  • Rape Crisis Centres – call 0800 88 3300 for contact details of your local centre. Provides support for survivors of sexual abuse, their families, friends and whānau.

  • Male Survivors Aotearoa New Zealand – call 0800 044 344. Offers one-to-one, peer and support groups for male survivors of sexual abuse and their significant others.

  • ACC Sensitive Claims Unit – call 0800 735 566 for access to services related to sexual abuse or sexual assault.

  • Hey Bro helpline – call 0800 HeyBro (0800 439 276). 24/7 help for men who feel they're going to harm a loved one or whānau member.

  • Korowai Tumanoko – text or call 022 474 7044 for a kaupapa Māori service for those with concerning or harmful sexual behaviour.

  • Stop – support for concerning or harmful sexual behaviour. Need to Talk? 1737 – free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

  • Youthline – call 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email [email protected]

  • Kidsline – call 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age (24-hour service).

  • Skylight– call 0800 299 100 helping children, young people and their families and whānau through tough times of change, loss, trauma and grief.

  • Oranga Tamariki – call 0508 325 459 (0508 FAMILY) or email [email protected] for concerns about children and young people.

Managed Isolation and Quarantine

There are strict border controls for international arrivals to New Zealand, including pre-departure testing and mandatory managed isolation or quarantine (MIQ). From 14 November 2021, the managed isolation period for people entering New Zealand changed from 14 days to 7 days, followed by isolation at home until the returnee’s day 9 Covid test results have been received. Please visit New Zealand Immigration’s website for the latest information on the current border controls.

What rights do I have in MIQ?

Except for limitations needed to stop the spread of Covid-19, people placed in quarantine or managed isolation by the Ministry of Health should have the same rights as someone who is self-isolating in their own home. You should still have nutritious food, access to hygiene facilities, the ability to contact your friends and family and to exercise. You are also entitled to full information about why you are being detained and for how long. You are still entitled to seek independent legal and medical advice. You are still entitled to be treated with dignity.

The Chief Ombudsman conducts independent inspections to monitor and report on MIQ facilities. People with complaints about MIQ or the MIQ booking system can complain to the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman has a specific MIQ complaints process set out on their website. Before taking a complaint to the Ombudsman, you should first make a complaint to MBIE under their internal MIQ complaints system.

I am a New Zealand resident and I can’t return home. What are my rights?

Section 18 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (NZBORA) gives New Zealand citizens the right to enter New Zealand.

The New Zealand borders are currently closed to most travellers due to Covid-19. New Zealand citizens and permanent residents have the legal right to return home. There are also a small number of limited exceptions to the border closure for New Zealand visa holders.

While the border closure does not apply to New Zealand citizens or residents, all people entering New Zealand are currently required to isolate in official MIQ facilities. The randomised booking system and the limited number of places in MIQ means that despite having the legal right to return home, many New Zealanders are practically unable to do so.

In October 2021 an advocacy group called Grounded Kiwis filed a claim for a judicial review in the High Court. The group claims the way the Government is operating the MIQ system breaches the NZBORA. A court hearing date has not yet been announced.

In the recent case of Bolton v Chief Executive of MBIE the High Court overturned a decision by MBIE to decline an application for an exemption to MIQ. In doing so, the Court held, among other things, that MBIE decision-makers are required to consider the rights of people to freedom of movement and, as citizens, to enter New Zealand without unreasonable limitation under the NZBORA. The Court also held that decision-makers must consider the need to avoid the risk of someone contracting COVID-19 at an MIQ facility, including any characteristics that may make that person vulnerable to COVID-19.

People with complaints about MIQ or the MIQ booking system can complain to the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman has a specific MIQ complaints process set out on their website. Before taking a complaint to the Ombudsman, you should first make a complaint to MBIE under their internal MIQ complaints system. On 20 October 2021 the Ombudsman announced an investigation into the MIQ system.

Older people

What are my rights to healthcare? I’m worried that I’ll be denied treatment because I’m older and have underlying health conditions.

Everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health according to international human rights law. The government is obliged to make every possible effort, within available resources, to achieve the right to health for everyone, in a non-discriminatory way.

You have the right not to be discriminated against for any reason set out under the Human Rights Act 1993, including age and disability.

There has been a lot of information in the news about health systems overseas having to use emergency triage because their resources are overloaded. For example, some countries have discussed the lack of ventilators, and whether older patients with less likelihood of recovery should be de-prioritised when allocating emergency resources and medical attention.

The rights of older people to health and life should be protected during this time, especially for vulnerable groups who already suffer poorer health outcomes. The government is confident in the New Zealand health system’s ability to cope with the number of cases and the resources required, so that everyone can receive equal care to recover from Covid-19 or other medical issues. Your doctor, and other healthcare providers, will be able to discuss this more with you if you are worried.

I live in a retirement village and they’ve told me my family can’t visit me until the lockdown is over. Can they do that?

The Ministry of Health has instructed disability and aged care residential facilities to stop all non-essential services and family visits. This is because older people often have underlying health issues, including respiratory issues that make them more vulnerable to Covid-19, and aged care facilities are particularly susceptible to the rapid transmission of viruses. If you are receiving palliative care, family visits are considered on a case by case basis.

Even though your family can’t visit you in person, you should still be able to contact your friends and family over the phone or through video calls. Unless you have been diagnosed or are suspected to have Covid-19, or there are cases in your residential facility, you should still be able to do most of your daily routine. If you do get sick with the virus, staff will isolate you in your room to make sure it doesn’t spread to other people. You should still have enough nutritious food, access to hygiene facilities (and assistance in showering or other activities, if necessary), access to medical treatment, and the ability to call your family while you are in isolation.

In Level 3, people living in a retirement village can extend their bubble to connect with close family, whanau or caregivers. Your bubble should be kept small and exclusive. Remember to take precautions like staying away from people who are unwell. This is different from aged care facilities, where visits to aged care facilities are restricted to essential and emergency services and staff only during Level 3.

In Level 2, visits from family, whanau and non-essential services are allowed in both retirement villages and aged care facilities.

My bubble feels unsafe and I think I might be suffering elder abuse. Can I leave?

Covid-19 has heightened the risks for those most vulnerable to violence, including elder abuse. Elder abuse can include psychological abuse like bullying or threats, financial abuse, physical or sexual abuse, and neglect. Isolation is not an excuse for any kind of violence.

If you are not being treated with dignity and respect, you can contact Age Concern for free and confidential support and advice about elder abuse and neglect. Age Concern provides free and confidential Elder Abuse Response Services throughout New Zealand. These services respond to any situations where an older person / kaumātua’s safety or wellbeing is at risk.

You can contact the Elder Abuse Response Service’s 24-hour helpline on 0800 32 668 65. It’s free and confidential. You can also text 5032 or email [email protected]

If the situation in your bubble is unsafe or life-threatening you can leave your bubble immediately and seek help from a neighbour or friend.

If you are in immediate danger, call 111 and ask for the Police.

Can my employer tell me not to come to work because I’m over 70?

For people aged 70 and over, and others with existing medical conditions, there are additional risks should you be exposed to Covid-19.

At Alert Level 3, you can choose to return to work if you can’t work from home. If you go to work, you will need to ensure your workplace has arrangements in place to keep you safe.

Options for managing your health and safety might include working at times where there are fewer other workers around, increased physical distancing where possible, additional protective measures or equipment, or undertaking duties with lower levels of customer interaction. If you can’t safely work at your workplace, and can’t work from home, you need to agree with your employer what your leave from work and pay arrangements will be.

While there are some exceptions, under the Human Rights Act 1993 it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee because of their age. If you feel you have been discriminated against you can make a complaint to us.

Police Authority

What rights do I have when interacting with the Police?

In all interactions with Police, you have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. You have the right:

not to be discriminated against for any reason set out under the Human Rights Act 1993 e.g. sex, race, disability.

to be informed what the Police powers are during the lockdown and to expect they are being applied fairly and consistently.

to accessible information about what your legal rights are and to communication support to ensure that these rights have been understood.

The powers used by Police must be proportionate and only to the extent necessary to prevent the virus spreading.

What additional legal rights do people under the age of 18 have?

Children and young people (under 18 years) have particular rights set out under the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989. Children or young people must be informed of their rights before being questioned by enforcement officers, charged with an offence or arrested. Explanations must be given in a manner and in language appropriate to the child or young person’s age and level of understanding. An enforcement officer should consider a warning as an alternative to prosecution.

What legal rights do I have if I am detained or arrested by Police?

If you are questioned, detained or arrested by Police, your legal rights are:

  • you can talk to a lawyer privately, without having to wait to see them
  • you can choose not to make a statement
  • you can ask why you are being questioned, detained, or arrested
  • Police have a list of the names and phone numbers of lawyers qualified to give advice and who have agreed to be contacted any time, day or night.

Who should I contact if I have concerns about my treatment by police?

If you have a concern with the way you have been treated by police, you can make a complaint via the following options:

Vaccines

In February 2021, the government started the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine in Aotearoa New Zealand. Everyone aged 12 years and older can now be vaccinated for Covid-19.

The Ministry of Health explains that the vaccine works by teaching the body’s immune system to respond quickly to infection without being exposed to that infection itself. It will not give you Covid-19 and it will not affect your DNA or genes. It does not contain any live virus, or dead or deactivated virus. Before vaccines are provided to the community, they must be approved by Medsafe. Medsafe is the New Zealand Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Authority, and is a part of the Ministry of Health.

The Ministry of Health emphasises that getting vaccinated “is an important step you can take to protect yourself, your kaumātua and whānau from the effects of the virus. It’s one way we can fight the COVID-19 pandemic and protect the welfare and wellbeing of our communities. By having the vaccine you’ll be playing your part to protect Aotearoa. The free COVID-19 vaccine will help protect the team of five million, and safeguard Aotearoa. It will save lives.” 

Which human rights are relevant when making decisions about vaccines?

Everyone needs to know what human rights are involved when thinking about vaccines. Human rights law is important in helping make decisions about medical care and treatment, including vaccination.

There are several legally protected rights involved under domestic and international human rights law regarding vaccines that involve a balance between public health and the protection of individual rights. Public health may constitute a legitimate purpose to limit the exercise of some rights. However, any restrictions on rights must be demonstrably justified under section 5 of the BORA. This means that they must be legal, proportionate, necessary.

Some of the relevant rights are found in:

What are the government’s human rights obligations concerning the Covid-19 vaccine?

Right to health (Article 12 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights)

Being vaccinated is a human rights measure in itself. Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) the New Zealand government recognises the “right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” (art 12). The government has also committed to taking steps necessary for the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases” (art 12(1)(c)) and, in the context of access to medicines the right to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications” (art 15(1)(b)).

The United Nations Committee that monitors the implementation of ICESCR has referred to the provision of immunisation against major infectious diseases occurring in the community as a “core obligation” of States and has said that “States must ensure the provision of healthcare, including immunization programmes against major infectious diseases."

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also stated that immunisation is a “core health service” that should be prioritised and safeguarded during the Covid-19 pandemic, where feasible.

Right to life (Section 8 BORA; Article 6 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

The right to life imposes a positive obligation on the New Zealand government to take appropriate measures to protect the life and health of New Zealanders. Public officials cannot deliberately take your life and have a duty to take proactive, reasonable steps to protect life.

The right to life is what we call an absolute human right, meaning that the government must protect this right. As an absolute right, the right to life cannot be lawfully restricted.

Rolling out the Covid-19 vaccine can be seen as a reasonable step to protect people from a real and immediate risk of Covid-19. Prioritising the order in which people receive their vaccine dependent on the level of risk that they face from becoming seriously ill from Covid-19 and/or by the likelihood that they will be exposed to the virus is about protecting the right to life.

The World Health Organisation has published a values framework for the allocation and prioritisation of Covid-19 vaccines.

As part of the New Zealand government Covid-19 vaccine programme, people who are not at immediate risk from Covid-19 are being encouraged to receive the vaccine to curb infection rates which will help to protect the lives of others.

Transparency and access to information (Art 19 ICCPR)

Transparency and access to information are essential components of human rights and go hand in hand with accountability.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights notes that the right to freedom of expression includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information from the State.

People have the right to know what is happening in a public health crisis. Transparency is essential in the vaccination process. The United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that “Information regarding processes of acquisition distribution and application of vaccines in a transparent and responsible manner is required.”

Information about the vaccine should be available in readily understandable formats and languages. Being open and transparent, and involving those affected in decision-making is key to ensuring people participate in measures designed to protect their own health and that of the wider population.

Equal and non-discriminatory access

Vaccination programs should be developed on the human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination, which guarantees access, availability and accessibility of resources without any distinction due to economic situation, ethnicity, gender or any other human or social conditions.

This would mean access to vulnerable communities including stateless people, migrants, refugees without discrimination.  

Is the vaccine mandatory or can you choose whether to have it?

In New Zealand, having a Covid-19 vaccine is voluntary and vaccines will not be forcibly administered. However, if you work in settings covered by the Covid-19 Public Health (Vaccinations) Order, receiving the vaccine is a requirement of the job.  

Right to refuse medical treatment (Section 11 NZBORA) 

Section 11 of the New Zealand Bill Of Rights Act (NZBORA) provides that “Every person has the right not to be subjected to medical or scientific experimentation without that person's consent.” 

The High Court in New Zealand has described the right to refuse medical treatment as an element of the general right to privacy and the right to bodily integrity, recognised by the common law as a fundamental right. 

The Supreme Court of New Zealand has found that, in some instances, the right to refuse medical treatment may be restricted. The Court in the case of New Health v South Taranaki District Council considered fluoridation was “compulsory medical treatment” and in breach of section 11 NZBORA. However, the Court found that this was a justified limitation under s 5 of the NZBORA. The Court concurred with the finding of the lower Court that the evidence of the public health benefits justified the limitation on rights. 

A recent High Court decision (explained further below) found that the COVID-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order 2021, which required workers to be vaccinated, limited the workers’ right to refuse medical treatment. However the Court found this limitation was a justified limitation under section 5 of the NZBORA to reduce the likelihood of the spread of Covid-19 in the wider community. 

Can my employer require me to have a vaccine?

As of 30 April 2021, the COVID-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order 2021 made it a requirement that all work in MIQ and other government officials at high-risk border settings must be undertaken by people who have received the Covid-19 vaccine. The Government subsequently expanded the Vaccinations Order to apply to workers in other ‘high risk’ sectors, including health and disability, education, and prisons. You can find up to date information about what work is covered by the Order on the Ministry of Health website.

Once the new COVID-19 Protection Framework is in force, the Government said it will also mandate vaccinations for workers at businesses where customers need to show their vaccine passes. For work not covered by the vaccine mandates, the Government has announced new legislation to guide decisions on what work requires vaccination. The new law will include a risk assessment process for employers to follow when deciding whether they can require vaccination for different types of work. This risk assessment will build on guidance already provided by WorkSafe.

The guidance from WorkSafe states:

Businesses and services can’t require an individual to be vaccinated. However, you can require a specific role be performed by a vaccinated person - if you have done a health and safety risk assessment to support this.

According to WorkSafe, health and safety risk assessments must consider two factors:

  • the likelihood of a worker being exposed to COVID-19 while performing the role, and 
  • the potential consequences of that exposure on others (e.g. community spread).

If there’s a high likelihood that the person performing the role may be exposed to Covid-19 and the consequences would be significant for other people, it’s likely the role needs to be performed by a vaccinated person.

If an employer decides a role needs to be performed by a vaccinated person, the Ministry of Business, Employment and Innovation (MBIE) has guidance on its website about the process the employer must follow. Any such process must be fair and reasonable and carried out in good faith. See also MBIE’s questions and answers for employers on the employment implications of Covid-19 vaccination.

Does the mandatory Vaccinations Order breach my rights?

Section 21B of the Human Rights Act states that when a person or organisation takes actions that are required by law, then those actions are not unlawful under the discrimination provisions under Part 2 of the Human Rights Act. Essentially this places responsibility on the Government that makes the laws, rather than on the people who follow them. In the context of vaccinations, this means that where employers are correctly applying and following the requirements of the COVID-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order 2021 their actions are unlikely to be unlawful under the Human Rights Act. However, people can challenge the Vaccination Order itself.  

This happened in October 2021 when four aviation workers challenged the legality of the COVID-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order 2021 in the High Court. The four workers lost their jobs after they refused to get vaccinated for Covid-19. They claimed as part of their case that the Vaccinations Order breached a number of their rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (NZBORA), including the right to life, the right to freedom from medical experimentation, the right to refuse medical treatment and the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and expression.  

In its judgment issued on 8 November 2021, the High Court found that, of those rights protected under the NZBORA, only the right to refuse medical treatment applied. The Court went on to find that while the Vaccination Order limited the workers’ right to refuse medical treatment, this limitation was justified under section 5 of the NZBORA to reduce the likelihood of the spread of Covid-19 in the wider community. Therefore, the Judge concluded the Vaccination Order did not breach the workers’ rights under the NZBORA. 

The Judge wrote: 

“I am satisfied that the vaccine is safe and effective, is significantly beneficial in preventing symptomatic infection of COVID19 including the Delta variant, and that it significantly reduces serious illness, hospitalisation and death. I also accept that it is likely to materially assist in preventing the risk of an outbreak or the spread of COVID-19 originating from border workers having contact with potentially infected persons from overseas. More generally for the reasons I have explained in detail above I accept that the measure contained in the Order is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” 

You can read a summary and a copy of the full judgement here.

Can an employer ask me if I’m vaccinated during a job interview, or refuse to employ me if I’m not vaccinated?

Employers can make Covid-19 vaccination a requirement for new employees if this is reasonable for the role. Worksafe has guidance on how to assess whether a specific role is high risk and needs to be performed by a vaccinated worker.

The Human Rights Act makes it unlawful for an employer to treat a job applicant differently due to their medical history. Generally, an employer should not ask job applicants questions about their medical histories or disabilities during a recruitment process. The employer should only ask questions that help them assess whether an applicant has the skills and abilities to carry out the job.

However, the Human Rights Act has an exception that allows employers to treat a job applicant differently if employing them for a certain role would create a genuine risk of harm to themselves or others, including the risk of infecting others with an illness. This exception does not apply if there are reasonable measures an employer could take to reduce the risk to a normal level (see our Reasonable Accommodation guide).

To read more about your rights in a recruitment process, see our A-Z Pre-employment guide.

Can my employer ask if I’ve been vaccinated or ask me for proof of being vaccinated?

Employers can ask if you have been vaccinated for Covid-19 if they can show they have a legitimate need to know the vaccination status of their employees.

Your health information, including whether you have been vaccinated for Covid-19, is your private information. Generally, employees do not need to share their vaccination status (or any personal health information) with their employer. However, there is a public health exception in the Privacy Act that permits the collection, use and disclosure of personal information where it is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to public health or public safety. The Privacy Commissioner provides more guidance about this exception here.

If you are in a specific role that requires staff to be vaccinated (for example, if you work at the border or in a MIQ facility) or if your employer has done a Covid-19 exposure risk assessment and can show that a specific role requires vaccinated staff, then your employer may ask for proof you have been vaccinated.

If you share your vaccination information with your employer, they must collect, store and share that information in accordance with the Privacy Act.

If you choose not to share your vaccination status with your employer, they may assume you are unvaccinated and take steps on that basis. They must tell you they have made this assumption.

See above: Can my employer require me to have a vaccine? It explains the process an employer needs to follow to limit certain roles to vaccinated staff. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment also provides information about employment and vaccines here.

What if I feel unsafe at work?

The government has published guidelines for how workplaces should operate at different Alert levels. If you believe your employer is not protecting the health and safety of workers, customers or other people who visit the workplace, you have rights under the Health and Safety at Work Act. See Worksafe’s website for more information.

Disabled employees also have the right to reasonable accommodation. This means a disabled employee can seek changes to work arrangements that would make work safe and accessible. For example, if your impairment or other health condition makes it less safe for you to return to work you could seek an accommodation to continue working from home. You can read more in our Reasonable Accommodation Guide.

Vaccination status certificates

“Vaccination status certificate”, “vaccine passport” and “vaccine pass” are terms used to describe official proof someone is double vaccinated for Covid-19. These have been adopted by some countries for international travel or domestic use.

Can I be refused service or entry to a public place if I am unvaccinated?

New Zealand does not currently use a vaccination status certificate. However, on 22 October 2021 the Government announced vaccination status certificates will be a key part of a new Covid-19 protection framework to manage Covid-19 in the community. People who have been double vaccinated can request their ‘My Vaccine Pass’ from the My Covid Record website. The Ministry of Health will then email the pass out for people to keep on their phones or print out.

While people can get their vaccine pass now, they will not be in use until the transition to the new Covid-19 Framework. The Government said that once the new framework is in force, the vaccine passes will be required in high-risk settings such as large events. Some places will be able to choose whether to use vaccine passes. Vaccine passes will not be used in places that provide essential services, such as supermarkets, pharmacies, health providers or petrol stations. See the Covid-19 website for the latest information about vaccine passes.

Vaccination status certificates have human rights implications, particularly regarding access to services and facilities. In its statement on Human Rights and Access to Vaccines, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that vaccination status certificates require intensive attention to pre-empt potential discrimination and monitor distribution to ensure equality and avoid discrimination. It is essential that the Government’s framework for the use of vaccination status certificates takes a human rights approach to avoid inequality and discrimination. Public health measures must be reasonable and proportionate to protect all human rights.

Can I be refused service or entry to a public place if I am unvaccinated for health reasons?

Blanket rules that only allow vaccinated people to access services or facilities may constitute unlawful discrimination under the Human Rights Act in certain situations.

For example, some disabled people cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons. To treat disabled people differently, by refusing service or entry or by offering more onerous terms of service or entry, causes detriment and might constitute unlawful discrimination under the Human Rights Act.

The concept of ‘reasonable accommodation’ is relevant here. Generally, this means that organisations are required to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of a disabled person. What is reasonable in any situation depends on factors including the legal provisions that may apply, the facts of a particular case, any costs involved, and whether the required actions could pose a risk to other people. You can read more in our Reasonable Accommodation Guide.

If you think you have faced unlawful discrimination, you can make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission.

Can I be refused access or services because I am unvaccinated due to my personal beliefs?

The Human Rights Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone because of their political opinion or religious belief (or any other protected ground in the Act).

The Human Rights Act does not define 'political opinion’. However, New Zealand courts have interpreted it to primarily apply to party political matters. As such the definition is unlikely to extend to someone’s personal preferences or views on vaccinations.

Someone who holds a religious belief that prevents them from being vaccinated may be able to object on religious grounds. Generally, someone making a claim on religious grounds would need to show their belief is sincere and connected to an established religion, rather than a personally held belief.

If you think you have faced unlawful discrimination, you can make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. The Commission can check whether the specific circumstances of a complaint fall under the Human Rights Act, and in some cases, offer a dispute resolution process for complaints.

I’m travelling overseas. What do I need to know?

Different countries have different requirements for entry. Some countries will only let you travel there if you have official proof you have been fully vaccinated. Some airlines also require proof of vaccination to fly internationally. Before you travel overseas, it is important to check what proof of vaccination you need.

If you are travelling overseas and need formal proof you have been vaccinated, you can request a vaccination confirmation letter from the Ministry of Health (see their website for more information).

Young people and vaccinations

In August 2021, Medsafe and the Government approved the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine for 12-15 year olds. This means everyone aged 12 years and over can now be vaccinated for Covid-19 in New Zealand.

Do young people need parental consent to get vaccinated?

From the age of 16, the Care of Children Act allows young people to give or refuse consent to medical care and treatment, which can include vaccinations. For young people under 16 years, generally parents and guardians play a key role in giving consent, as they have primary responsibility for the welfare and best interests of the young people in their care. The Ministry of Health recommends young people discuss the vaccine with their family, whānau or a trusted support person before being vaccinated.

However, young people under 16 may still consent to medical treatment in circumstances where a medical professional considers that they have the maturity to do so (this is sometimes referred to as “Gillick” competence, named after an English legal case which established this rule in law). The law recognises children and young peoples’ rights to participate in making decisions that affect them. Section 11 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (the right to refuse medical treatment) and Right 7 of the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights both support the view that people are presumed to be competent to make decisions about their own treatment unless there are reasonable grounds to believe otherwise.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises that age alone is an inaccurate marker of a person’s level of competence. The Convention also says that children and young people’s best interests are the primary consideration in all decisions (for example, when attempting to resolve disagreements between parents, health professionals, and children/young people).

The Ministry of Health has published guidance to health workers on the consent of 12-15 year olds. There is also a factsheet available here. The guidance states that for school-based vaccination programmes, young people aged 12-15 years need written consent from a parent or guardian to be vaccinated. The healthcare provider needs to give eligible students and their families and whānau clear and age-appropriate information about the vaccine ahead of the vaccination date.

The guidance states that for community-based vaccination programmes, young people aged 12-15 have the right to decide if they want to be vaccinated. They do not need consent from a parent or guardian, but the healthcare provider must be satisfied the young person has the ability to make a rational, informed choice about accepting or refusing the vaccine.

Vaccination exemptions

Can I get an exemption from the mandatory vaccination orders?

In limited situations, workers who are subject to the Covid-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order 2021 can get temporary medical exemptions from being vaccinated against Covid-19.

The Ministry of Health’s website has information about how to apply for an exemption from mandatory vaccinations. Members of the public cannot directly apply for an exemption themselves. From 10 November 2021, only qualified medical practitioners can apply for exemptions on behalf of their patients. A Ministry of Health panel assesses each application against specific medical criteria.

The Ministry of Health has said only a very small number of applications are likely to be approved. Exemptions will only be granted where there is no suitable alternative vaccine available. Any exemptions granted are temporary and valid for a maximum of six months.

Is there a religious exemption to the vaccination orders?

People who choose not to be vaccinated due to their religious beliefs cannot apply for a vaccination exemption. The Ministry of Health only grants temporary vaccination exemptions for medical reasons.

The Human Rights Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against people because of their religious belief (or any other protected ground in the Act). Generally, someone making a claim on religious grounds would need to show their belief is sincere and connected to an established religion, rather than a personally held belief.

Section 21B of the Act states that when a person or organisation takes actions that are required by law, then those actions are not unlawful under the discrimination provisions of the Act. Essentially, this places responsibility on the Government that makes the rules, rather than on the organisation or employer who follows them. In the context of mandatory vaccinations, this means that where employers are correctly applying and following the requirements of the Vaccinations Order, their actions are unlikely to be unlawful under the Human Rights Act.

If you think you have faced unlawful discrimination, you can make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. The Commission can check whether the specific circumstances of a complaint fall under the Human Rights Act, and in some cases, offer a dispute resolution process for complaints.

Special measures

When is different treatment allowed?

While the Human Rights Act makes it unlawful to treat people differently because of one of the protected grounds in the Act, there are some situations where different treatment can be justified.

Both the Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act recognise that to overcome discrimination, positive actions may be needed to help particular groups achieve equal outcomes with other groups.  These positive actions are called ‘special measures’ or ‘affirmative action’. They are not unlawful if they help people in disadvantaged groups achieve equality.

Examples of special measures in New Zealand include university entry quotas or scholarships for Māori and Pacific people, and health programmes or subsidies for particular groups.

Special measures must be based on information that shows that the present outcomes are unequal. They must also be proportionate and done in good faith.

Why were Māori prioritised in the vaccine roll out?

When the government started the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine in 2021, it prioritised people who were most at risk of serious illness and death due to Covid-19. This meant that older people, people with underlying health conditions, and Māori and Pacific communities were prioritised for vaccinations.

The Initial Covid-19 Māori Response Action Plan outlines why the Ministry of Health decided to prioritise Māori in the vaccine rollout. The plan highlights the disproportionate impact of previous pandemics on Māori and the higher rates of infectious diseases among Māori compared with other New Zealanders. It explains that Māori are likely to have an increased risk of infection during a community outbreak due to higher rates of chronic conditions and comorbidities, and socioeconomic factors such as living in higher deprivation and higher-density housing conditions. The Ministry of Health also refers to the Crown’s responsibility to fulfil its obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

This is an example of a ‘special measure’ that aimed to help Māori achieve equal health outcomes with other New Zealanders. As explained above, special measures are allowed under the Human Rights Act if they help people in certain groups achieve equality. In fact, in some cases they are not only permitted but required, to ensure equality for disadvantaged groups.

The Government also has obligations to Māori under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, as noted in the recent case of Te Pou Matakana v Attorney-General. In that case, the High Court declared that the Ministry of Health must act consistently with Te Tiriti and its principles when deciding how to use health information in the context of Covid-19.