Should the UK government make it mandatory for people to get vaccinated?
The news this week that most schools in England have reopened, will have come as blessed relief to millions of parents struggling to educate their children at home. This comes as the number of people to have received their first dose of the anti-Covid vaccine in the UK has exceeded 21 million.
As a result of this staggering achievement and with the harsh lockdown that has been in place here since the beginning of January, the number of of hospitalizations and deaths from the disease has dropped dramatically. Consequently, the government has now published what it calls a “roadmap” of the way out of restrictions, culminating, should the numbers of infections continue to fall, to a complete return to normal life in June.
While there have been many well-publicized breaches of the lockdown protocols, the British public has, by and large, followed the rules. When the government imposed the last set of restrictions on the country earlier this year, including the closure of most retail outlets and all hospitality and leisure centres, it was concerned that it would face a backlash from a public angry at the curbs on its freedoms.
But the opposite has been true. While there have been a few dissenting voices, mainly it has to be said from Tory parliamentarians, the vast majority of the British people have accepted the constraints.
In fact, poll after poll has suggested that many of them would like the government to go further and impose even harsher curbs. Most people here, it seems are, if not happy, then willing to comply with the rules and, in the true spirit of British pragmatism, simply keep their heads down and “do the right thing.”
This desire to do what is right for the greater good, while certainly not unique to the British, does seem to be an innate part of its national character. During the height of the pandemic there were a plethora of t-shirts posters and postcards on sale that replicated the old World War Two slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
And for many people, this is precisely what they have done; just got on with it and tried their best to do what was morally right. That’s not to say that people haven’t complained, for complaining is also part of the national psyche. But having grumbled, most just accepted the situation and stuck to the rules.
Whether in the long run, this turns out to be a good thing, only history will judge. Within the past year, the people have seen so many restrictions imposed on their individual personal freedoms, that some have begun to question whether the British public have been just a little too compliant.
When the government ordered the wearing of face masks and social distancing, almost everyone donned a face mask and kept the regulation two metre distance from others. Now in supermarkets, it is rare to see anyone without a mask or attempting to invade the personal space of others. Those that do, usually get a death stare from their fellow shoppers.
When Britain was told to work from home, most did so. When people were ordered not to meet with more than one other person and then only outside and certainly not sit on a park bench with that one other person, they happily obliged.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, is by nature a libertarian. But he has passed more legislation restricting the freedoms of the citizens of this country than any other prime minister in peacetime.
When the vaccine was first rolled out, there was a call from businesses and the public that those who had been vaccinated should be issued with a vaccine passport to allow them to travel and enter hospitality and sporting venues. Initially, this was dismissed out of hand by the government. Now it seems that it is considering the proposal.
The next suggestion to be voiced, was that those heath and care workers who refuse to have the vaccine should either be forced to do so or lose their jobs. Interestingly, this has come, not from the government, but from surveys of the public. When pressed, government spokesmen have consistently refused to entirely rule this out.
While logically this might be another case of “doing the right thing” to protect the wider community, it would be quite a step to legally force people to have to have an anti-Covid injection. The consequence of this to those still refusing would be to effectively bar them from any access to social, leisure, or sporting activities, and would in essence end their careers.
Recent reports have said that up to 20% of all of the UK’s health and care workers have not taken up the offer of a vaccine. This does seem a strange stance for a health professional to take, since most will be at greater risk of exposure to the Covid virus than the majority of the population. However, having taken that position, can it be right for any democratically-elected government to force individuals to be vaccinated on pain of losing their job?
It smacks of authoritarianism. Besides, on a purely practical level, given that the National Health Service is already chronically understaffed, losing another 20% of doctors and nurses would be catastrophic at a time of national crisis.
As the road towards a final lifting of all restrictions approaches, these are questions that the government will have to wrestle with. If they do decide to go down the route of harsher measures with vaccine refusers to prevent further outbreaks, it is certain that they will have the support of the vast majority of the British public. That might, for many of us, just be a step too far.
Kit Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.