27 July 2021

Nudge, don’t shove: vaccine passports are no way to encourage young people to get jabbed

By

Government has taken a pickaxe to our freedoms over the course of this pandemic, tirelessly chipping away at our basic liberties with restrictions ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous. And in response to this creeping authoritarianism the public’s freedom muscle has atrophied to such a degree that even human rights barristers no longer seem to understand the meaning of the word “liberal”.

During a TalkRADIO interview this morning Baroness Helena Kennedy claimed, somewhat preposterously, that while liberty is “very important” to us Brits, “people sometimes need a little bit of coercion”. Kennedy, who is Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, was responding to the news that the Government is considering proposals for mandatory Covid vaccinations for students – and the backlash the suggestion has prompted.

One union has seized the opportunity to disagree with Government twice in one week by claiming such a move would be “hugely discriminatory”. Labour has branded the idea a “barrier to learning”. In the topsy-turvy world of Covid, the left are objecting to greater state interference while Conservative ministers find themselves so ideologically adrift that they’re unsure whether people should be forced to have something stuck in their bodies. Is the outrage justified?

The term “slippery slope” is among the most tediously overused in political discourse, but this government has form. Just look at the runaway train of paternalistic lifestyle regulation that our self-professed “libertarian” Prime Minister is presiding over. Or the fact that ministers are now having doubts over the irreversibility of the unlocking roadmap. In June it was announced everyone working in care homes would need to be fully Covid-19 vaccinated with both doses, then policymakers set nightclubs in their sights, and the list has since been expanded to include football stadiums, places of worship, pubs, restaurants and, most recently, the lecture theatre.

The Prime Minister is said to be “raging” at the slower rates of vaccine uptake among younger age groups, with a third of 18-29-year-olds not receiving a first dose. Jabs are, after all, the fastest way out of this pandemic, and hesitancy is hindering the rollout. Britain passed the world’s first Vaccination Act, making it mandatory for all children born after 1 August 1853 to be vaccinated against smallpox during their first three months of life. If compulsion rid us of that pestilence, why not give Covid similar treatment?

There’s a good reason why mandatory vaccinations are rare. Countries like the UK (supposedly) value individual responsibility and personal autonomy. Even in less liberal nations, people tend to look unfavourably upon governments undermining bodily integrity. Compulsion is an ethical minefield – in protecting one group you risk undermining the fundamental rights of another. What of those who are unable to receive it for medical reasons?

And there’s a very real risk it would backfire by making people less likely to get the jab. Not all of the hesitant are anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists, but the latter would certainly get more ammunition if government made it mandatory. Even if it leads to a slight uptick in uptake this round, research has shown that if individuals feel constricted, they will reassert their choice by refusing vaccination on the next possible occasion.

Rather than using the stick, the Prime Minister should make some effort to understand why vaccine rates among younger age groups are slowing. Is it education? A lack of personal risk? Frustration that, after months of having their freedoms limited to mitigate the health impact on the old, they are now being treated like errant, irresponsible schoolchildren? And the Government ought to consider, as Ryan Bourne and Sam Bowman proposed on this website some moons ago, rolling out incentives to get the hesitant to take vaccines. Cash payments or lotteries could be the inducements that the stragglers need – to help overcome any misplaced concerns, protect us all, and put an end to this grim saga.

While the Government’s position on mandatory vaccines will trigger much heated debate in the weeks and months to come, it should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. It may just be hot air; a thinly veiled ploy to shove the unvaccinated into coming forward. Consider the immediate backlash from Conservative backbenchers – not to mention the sectors affected – when Boris Johnson said vaccine passports would be compulsory in nightclubs from September. Consider also the Government’s consistently inconsistent communication over the past 16 months.

Sometimes the messaging is irrelevant: Baroness Kennedy said she’d prefer to call vaccine certification a “pass”, which is the rhetorical equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what term we use: mandatory vaccines are a bad idea – and I suspect the government knows it.

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Annabel Denham is Director of Communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.