What shall we do about the anti-vaxxers? A presumptuous question, I know, because they’re human beings, same as the majority of the population who choose to take the Covid-19 vaccines, and we’re all entitled to do what we will or won’t with our own bodies.
But the time has come when the hard choices are looming closer. If we don’t want this Covid crisis to last forever, we need some new simple, guidelines: No jab, no job; no jab, no access to NHS healthcare; no jab, no state education for your kids. No jab, no access to pubs, restaurants, theatres, cinemas, stadiums. No jab, no entry to the UK, and much else.
Who wants their grandma looked after by someone with coronavirus, or teaching in a school full of kids sneezing the Indian variant everywhere, or to watch a football game with someone coughing their viral load all over you? That’s not my idea of freedom.
Society always needs to balance rights against obligations, and, with rare exceptions (on problem health grounds) those refusing a vaccine need to accept what everyone else does, or face the consequences.
It is a critical moment, a point where we can either win the war with the virus, and keep it down to endemic but minimal levels, or lose the struggle forever. So we either get the vaccination programme done, to borrow a phrase, or risk many more lives lost, and never-ending stop-go, on-off lockdowns every time some new variant appears and starts to “spread like wildfire”, as the health secretary graphically puts it.
Watch: British Anti-Vaxxers Take to the Streets, Spreading Misinformation
Herd immunity cannot work unless the great majority of a population is inoculated. In the earlier stages of the programme, it didn’t matter so much that there were some who were reluctant, for whatever reason. Now, with the appearance of the more infective Indian variant, and with the willing soon to be vaccinated, the tougher, stricter choices have to be taken.
They need to be taken by those individuals who need convincing about the safety of the vaccine – and millions of successful jabs should prove that point – but decisions have also to be taken by the community as a whole.
Fortunately, no one’s fundamental human rights need to be violated. No one should ever make vaccination compulsory, for that very reason. It would be a violation of their human rights. But those who decline to accept their societal obligations, as is their right, cannot expect life to be just the same as it ever was and they can just go around spreading the virus to other people, vulnerable or not. The rest of us have rights too, including the right to life.
We have to protect the wider population from ill-health, death and the lingering social impact of a fractured economy, stuttering month-to-month in and out of tiers and restrictions. Who wants that to go on forever? Of course, we could try to “learn to live with” the virus and the succession of more vicious variants, but it would cost many lives, and tear society apart and break the NHS – full-on waves of the plague, like in the old days.
As the Tory MP Mark Harper tweeted recently: “Concerning to hear Govt is entertaining the delay of the 21 June unlocking – causing massive problems for many people’s livelihoods – because some people won’t have a jab. Wider society’s fate can’t be sealed by the actions of a small group of people, whatever their reasoning.”
Quite right, which is why the doubtful need to be persuaded and encouraged to do the right thing. There should be far more mobile, drop-in vaccine centres, door-to-door outreach, public information, debunking campaigns, choice of types of vaccines and so on to reach individuals and communities who have missed out on this life-saving jab.
But, if they really are so insistent that the vaccine is dangerous or an instrument of mind control or whatever, then they are free to go vaccine-free, but not to go around infecting, hurting and maybe killing their fellow citizens with impunity. It is discriminatory, certainly, but it is fair discrimination, just as we only allow qualified drivers to be employed as train drivers.
If we discourage irresponsible people from drink-driving, as Andrew Lloyd-Webber argues, or from smoking indoors, or polluting the environment, then surely we can discourage them from spreading a potentially deadly disease? As I say, with rare exceptions of genuine medical justification, everyone who refuses a vaccine could be a killer on the loose, and should be judged accordingly.
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