Update 11/11/2021: Justice Adamson dismissed Larter’s challenge in a ruling on 10 November, agreeing with evidence given by Chant that mandatory vaccination of all health staff was necessary because of, “the risks posed by the virus, its transmissibility, the relative inefficacy of the vaccine to protect vulnerable persons and the integrated nature of NSW Health”.
Adamson made reference to the wide degree of discretion available to Health Minister Brad Hazzard in making public health orders, and following the decision in Kassam repeated that the court was only required to judge the legality of the orders, and not their merits.
Larter’s conscientious objection was also rejected by the court on the grounds that freedoms might be limited for the protection of public health.
“The dictates of his conscience do not relieve him from complying with, or being bound by, valid orders,” Adamson held.
“[T]he plaintiff would be in the same position if his objection to the virus arose from veganism, Buddhism, Catholicism or idiosyncratic beliefs.”
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A Catholic paramedic and father of six facing the sack for refusing mandatory COVID-19 vaccination has appeared in the Supreme Court of NSW in the latest attempt to test the limits of public health orders.
John Larter, the deputy mayor of Snowy Valleys council and a senior paramedic of 23 years’ service attached to Tumut hospital, objects to the vaccine for religious and political reasons and sought either to have NSW public health orders quashed or to be excused from vaccination.
The Public Health (COVID-19 Vaccination of Health Care Workers) Order 2021 required NSW health staff to have received one dose of the vaccine by 30 September, and two by 30 November.
“A bit further on from that, I’m not convinced that the kind of technology in those vaccines is a natural one.”
Some have refused and subsequently received notices that their employment would be terminated.
In two days of hearings on 4 and 5 November, Larter’s barrister, Shane Prince SC, argued the order was not a “necessary and proportionate response” because it did not sufficiently account for the actual risks posed by a “small number of conscientious objectors”.
Unvaccinated health care staff could have been redeployed away from frontline work, Prince said, where they did not pose a risk to vulnerable populations.
NSW Chief Medical Officer Kerry Chant told the court that no modelling or statistical analysis had been undertaken to account for the possibility of a cohort of unvaccinated staff because “there are too many variable inputs to really meaningfully do that modelling”.
By late September, 94% of all NSW staff had been vaccinated, according to government statistics presented by Prince.
Prince also submitted that the order was unreasonable because it made no provision for unvaccinated staff to return to work once COVID-19 eases from a pandemic to endemic stage – ie. “living with COVID” – and instead terminates them “irrevocably”.
Speaking to The Catholic Weekly, Larter said his objections to vaccination were “multifaceted”, but stemmed from both his religious and political convictions.
“Larter is a perennial whistleblower who has exposed cultural and operational problems within the Ambulance service …”
He became a devout Roman Catholic after marrying his wife, whose mother was an ex-nun who left her order to marry and become a school teacher at the age of 26.
Larter was baptised before his wedding and has since brought his children up in the church.
“My mother in law is obviously a very good Catholic,” Larter said, “and I’ve met some really good friends through the church. That’s sort of where it all kicked off.”
Despite advice from the Vatican and Australian Catholic Bishops, Larter is still troubled by “the fact that the vaccines have links to aborted foetal cells, which I obviously have some objection to.”
“A bit further on from that, I’m not convinced that the kind of technology in those vaccines is a natural one,” he added, referring to the novel mRNA technology used in some COVID-19 vaccines.
When asked why he does not accept the advice of the Catholic hierarchy, Larter said, “I could probably be more convinced, less sceptical of it, if I was of the view there was an absolute necessity for it.”
Larter is a longstanding member of the Liberal Party and currently serves as Deputy Mayor of Snowy Valleys council.
He also unsuccessfully nominated for preselection in the State seat of Wagga Wagga in 2018, after the Independent Commission Against Corruption investigation that prompted the resignation of local member Daryl Maguire – the former partner of recently-resigned Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
“It would have been entirely rational to have no such order [mandating vaccines]. So rational to have no order, rational to have a really encompassing order. And everything in between is rational.”
Larter is a perennial whistleblower who has exposed cultural and operational problems within the Ambulance service, including mounting a successful campaign to secure winter gear for Tumut paramedics who frequently attend disasters in extreme cold weather, even blizzards.
His public profile has helped him crowdfund his legal costs. At the time of writing he has raised $240,000 through donations to a GoFundMe page.
Larter v Hazzard is the latest attempt to test the limits of COVID-19 public health orders in NSW, with comparable cases also currently before the courts in Victoria.
Jeremy Kirk SC, who represented Health Minister Brad Hazzard, told the court on 5 November that the “diabolically difficult” circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that a variety of responses by the Minister could be justified.
“That’s not to say there’s no possibility of review [by the court], but it’s a very broad review.”
“It would have been entirely rational to have no such order [mandating vaccines]. So rational to have no order, rational to have a really encompassing order. And everything in between is rational,” Kirk added.
“And that’s the diabolical judgement. And that’s the political judgement.”
“Larter is a longstanding member of the Liberal Party and currently serves as Deputy Mayor of Snowy Valleys council.”
In October, Justice Robert Beech-Jones in Kassam v Hazzard ruled against multiple plaintiffs from Western Sydney local government areas of concern in the first major decision on COVID-19 orders.
Occupational Health and Safety officer Al-Munir Kassam and others claimed the orders infringed on fundamental rights, including the right to bodily autonomy.
Justice Beech-Jones noted in his judgment in Kassam that the court was not to substitute its own decisions for those of the Minister.
In that case he ruled that the abrogation of rights for the sake of public health, including freedom of movement, “are the very type of restrictions that the [public health order] clearly authorises”.