This article was published on Newshub (6 July 2022).

To relieve pressure on general practitioners, on Tuesday the Ministry of Health told employers they can use text messages from the ministry as evidence employees either have COVID-19 or are household contact – but there are concerns it could lead to exploitation.

The Ministry of Health said the text messages are “reliable evidence” employees need time off work and can be used “rather than asking for a traditional GP ‘medical certificate’, which creates additional work for general practice at a particularly busy time of the year”. But the problem with the text messages is employees can just tell the ministry they have COVID-19, whether they do or not, and they will send the text.

Employment law expert Jennifer Mills told AM host Ryan Bridge that generally, an employee ought to provide a medical certificate if an employer requests it. But the Holidays Act, which deals with sick leave, doesn’t require a medical certificate as proof of sickness. “Provided an employee can easily provide proof, then that ought to be accepted,” Mills said.

She said it is possible employers would consider the text sufficient – but they can question it. “If an employer has a concern about genuineness, then they can say to the employee, ‘We’d like you to now go and get a medical certificate from your GP.’ “Because the Holidays Act is permissive, it’s certainly one option employers could consider.”

The Ministry of Health said replacing a medical certificate with the text system will help GPs who are under intense pressure from dealing with rising COVID-19 cases, the return of the flu and overflow from hospitals.

Last week, Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners medical director Bryan Betty told AM that the situation in the health sector was “very serious”. “What is critically important is that we keep capacity open for those who do need to be seen urgently or do need that appointment,” Dr Betty said. “So it’s a very difficult situation at the moment.”