Nearly two years since Chinese doctors first observed mysterious new cases of pneumonia, Covid-19 is still with us. On top of that, what has been described as the most worrying variant yet has emerged. Could mandatory vaccinations be a way out?
Covid vaccinations are already a requirement for public life in many parts of the world.
If you are a French doctor, a New Zealand teacher or a Canadian government employee, getting your shots is essential to go to work. Indonesia can deny benefits to people who refuse jabs. Greece is making them compulsory for the over-60s.
Austria is set to go further still, with a plan to introduce mandatory vaccinations for all by February.
This would not mean Austrians being forcibly injected. There will be medical and religious exemptions. But the bulk of the remaining unvaccinated population face fines for not getting their shots.
With Germany planning a similar move it is not a debate that is going away. I spoke to public health and other experts to get a sense of what’s at stake.
FOR: Vaccines save lives
There’s a very simple argument in favour of mandating Covid-19 vaccinations. By getting vaccinated you reduce your risk of serious illness. Less serious illnesses mean fewer deaths, and less pressure on hospitals.
Historically, immunisation campaigns have seen huge success, eliminating diseases like smallpox or drastically reducing mortality levels in others.
“We have really good examples that just show a direct causal relationship between requirements, getting very high vaccination rates, and protecting not just individuals but protecting communities,” says Jason Schwartz, an associate professor in the History of Medicine at Yale University.
“Vaccines work, they absolutely work, we’re got a large body of evidence to show that.”
Mandates softer than the one proposed by Austria have achieved their goal of raising vaccination levels. France’s pass sanitaire, required to access restaurants and other public spaces, is credited with boosting rates to the extent the government hopes it can avoid compulsory vaccinations.
AGAINST: There will be resistance
Here in London, in July anti-lockdown demonstrators took to the streets to demonstrate against a lockdown that had been lifted just hours earlier.
The point is, whatever a government does, it will face opposition. Covid restrictions in particular have drawn protests around the world and mandatory vaccinations are a step beyond, say, a mask mandate.
“When it comes to vaccines, people do think very differently,” says Vageesh Jain, a public health doctor at the Institute for Global Health at University College London.
“Anything that’s administered to them in their body, it’s not going to be thought of in the same way, even though academics and others may think theoretically it’s just a restriction, people do have this kind of emotive response.”