A new wave of Covid infection is hitting Europe. And with that comes the threat of further lockdowns, deaths, and a fierce debate over compulsory vaccinations. So far, Austria is the first nation to introduce mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations for all and Germany considers the move ‘unavoidable’. New lockdowns in Belgium and the Netherlands have been met with widespread protests. The British government has now made vaccines compulsory for all health and social care workers. The question for the UK, Europe, and the world is whether mass vaccinations are the answer. And if so, can a government legitimately force its citizens to get jabbed?

Variolae Vaccinae

The short answer to that question is, yes. Governments have done this before. In fact, the word ‘vaccine’ comes from the first disease we ever vaccinated against; smallpox. By the mid 18th century smallpox was, much like coronavirus, a major global endemic disease. It killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans a year. But in 1795, a British doctor called Edward Jenner used a small amount of cowpox (the Latin for cow is vacca) to protect against the much deadlier smallpox virus. In 1807, Bavaria became the first country to make vaccination against smallpox compulsory, and much of the world followed. As Rajaie Batniji writes in The Lancet:

‘By the mid-19th century in Europe, regions with mandatory vaccination proved to have substantially fewer deaths from smallpox than those that relied on voluntary vaccination’.

In 1853, England made vaccination mandatory and saw a significant reduction in deaths from smallpox. Data from the US is perhaps the most striking. Between 1919 and 1928 the ten states with mandatory vaccination laws had 6·6 cases per 10,000. Those who had prohibited compulsory vaccines had 115·2 cases per 10,000. Rather than being an authoritarian breach of individual rights, it was a highly effective public health measure. Those who did not comply did not face vicious persecution, but a fine. By the 1950s, 2 million people a year died from smallpox (in comparison: the World Health Organisation estimates that there were 3 million Covid-related deaths last year), but through a concerted global effort, which included mandatory vaccinations, the virus was eradicated. The World Health Assembly declared ‘solemnly’ in 1980:

 ‘… the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox …’.

History reveals that enforced vaccines undoubtedly played a major role in the eradication of one of the deadliest diseases. The cost of eroding medical autonomy was arguably justified by liberating the globe from a destructive pandemic. Given the rising rate of infections, a similar global approach to vaccination is needed now to prevent further lockdowns and excess deaths. We may never be fully free from Covid, but we can at least neutralise it.

Whose liberty do we prioritize?

A fair criticism of my position is that it refers to the past. That was then and this is now. There are plenty of things that we did in the 19th century that were not moral and should never have been permitted. In fact, in most cases, we absolutely shouldn’t use the Victorians to guide our public health policy. Our grasp of human rights and civil liberties is much clearer now. This is perhaps why quite a large number of very intelligent people, many of whom are medical professionals, remain very resistant to the idea of forcing people to get vaccinated. The Chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society has said:

‘We believe that informed consent is preferable to mandatory vaccination for health and care workers’.

In an ideal world, enough people would volunteer to get vaccinated and there would be no need for mandates.  This has not proven to be the case so far. Across the UK and the world, vaccine hesitancy and mistrust of the jab have become worryingly rooted in a significant number of the population. A leading cause of this is online misinformation — something that remains notoriously difficult for governments to control. Nearly a year has passed since the vaccine was first rolled out. The number of those fully vaccinated in the UK presently hovers at 68.8 per cent. It is estimated that we need to reach a 70-85 per cent uptake to achieve herd immunity.

Understandably, many people feel uncomfortable handing more power to governments. We fear the slippery slope and the erosion of our liberties. But the bigger philosophical question this begs is: whose liberty do we prioritise? Is it the liberty of those who believe demonstrably untrue conspiracy theories; or the liberty of the greater majority of people who want to be vaccinated and get on with their lives?

Further still, where is the greater loss of liberty; having to get a vaccine or being forced into further lockdowns?

A vaccine nation

Britain has often led the world when it comes to public health. It was the British Edward Jenner who developed the first vaccine. It was our scientists who created one of the first Covid vaccines. And it is the NHS, one of our nation’s greatest institutions, which has become the model for so many healthcare systems. But go back to 1948 and it was a different story. Many people thought that nationalised healthcare was an infringement on individual liberty. They were wrong. Similarly, making jabs compulsory is not the authoritarian nightmare many would have you believe — just as being ‘forced’ to wear a seatbelt is not.

The time for real leadership is now. ‘Global Britain’ could become a reality if we start advocating for mandatory vaccines across the world. We must also share our vaccine supplies more generously. Those who believe the dangerous lies of anti-vaxxers are not evil, but we must ensure that their foolishness does not harm our society and the world. Yes, everyone has the right to think and believe what they like, but no one has the right to put other people’s lives at risk.

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