Tasmanian Catholic call for priests with 'conscientious objection' to COVID vaccines to be allowed into aged care

The Archbishop says he is seeking a way to allow priests to "continue ministry in aged care facilities" if unvaccinated. (Supplied: Rosie O'Beirne)

Tasmanian Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous is pushing for priests who have a "conscientious objection" to COVID-19 vaccines to still be allowed to work in aged care homes after a vaccine mandate comes into effect at the end of next week.

In a letter to clergy this month, Archbishop Porteous wrote that he was "obligated to respect the decision of those members of the clergy who have a conscientious objection to receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines currently available in Australia and would ask that those with such an objection contact me directly to discuss how to manage this issue with regard to provision of ministry in aged care facilities within their parish".

Archbishop Porteous also wrote that he was "currently engaging the Tasmanian Government about the possibility of Rapid Antigen Testing being used as part of an exemption protocol for those with conscientious objection in order for them to continue ministry in aged care facilities".

Health and Community Services Union state secretary Tim Jacobson said it would be "peculiar" for the government to give clergy an exemption on the ground of conscientious objection.

"I just can't understand on what basis they would be seeking to have that objection applied," Mr Jacobson said.

Mr Jacobson said affected workers "can object to having it, but with the knowledge you are no longer able to work [in] or enter an aged care facility".

"They're not making it compulsory to have it, but if you don't have it, which is your choice as a citizen, you just can't work there."

From September 17, those who work in aged care homes, including those who come into the home to provide services other than gardening and maintenance, must have at least one dose of the vaccine and have made a booking for their second, or have made a booking for their first dose.

Archbishop Porteous said the church had received legal advice that priests providing pastoral care would be subject to the directive.

Exemptions apply for anyone unable to be vaccinated against COVID-19 due to medical conditions, or those who are ineligible to be vaccinated due to age.

"As has been consistently seen interstate and across the world, aged care homes are especially vulnerable to the serious impacts of COVID-19, and it is imperative that we do all we can to ensure as many people, both staff and patients, are vaccinated as quickly as possible," Health Minister Jeremy Rocklifff said when he announced the directive.

In a statement on Thursday, the Archdiocese of Hobart said: "Archbishop Porteous has written to the Tasmanian Government seeking clarification about priests being able to continue their ministry in aged and health care facilities after the 17th September."

"His Grace has not yet received a response from the government," the statement read.

Asked about the issue of conscientious objection to COVID-19 vaccines at budget estimates hearings on Wednesday, Tasmanian Health Department secretary Kathrine Morgan-Wicks said: "In terms of conscientious objection, whether it's on a religious ground or other, an employee is entitled to have that and to maintain it, however, we have a range of options that we will work through with each individual in relation to that."

Kathrine Morgan-Wicks says any "conscientious objection" may preclude them from being in contact with at-risk people. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

The Australian Medical Association's Tasmanian branch supports the government's vaccine mandate.

"[There are] worrying numbers of COVID-19-infected frontline workers furloughed and unable to work across mainland states, as well as several clusters being linked to hospitals and aged care facilities," AMA Tasmania president Dr Helen McArdle said.

"We support the Tasmanian government's call for mandatory vaccines for healthcare workers across all sectors, as necessary to sustain the vulnerable Tasmanian health system into the future for when the time comes and we need to learn to live with COVID-19.

"This is about healthcare worker safety and the safety of patients, and not about vaccines by force.

Catholic Health Australia (CHA), the peak advisory body for not-for-profit hospitals and aged care, supports the mandatory vaccination of health workers against COVID-19.

"People that come to our hospitals and aged care services expect to be cared for in an environment that is safe and of minimal risk to their health. Central to that is the need to vaccinate our workforce against COVID — this protects the vulnerable people we care for from harm," CHA's health policy director, James Kemp, said.

Pope Francis has been urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, describing it as "an act of love".

The Australian Catholic Medical Association has also released a statement on conscientious objection to COVID-19 vaccines.

"The Catholic Medical Association of Australia, solicitous of the rights and dignity of its members and all people of conscience, and following Catholic teaching, calls for respect for the legitimacy of conscientious objection to vaccination, and urges protection against coercion and unjust sanctions for those who sincerely choose that path," the statement reads.


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