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Should COVID-19 vaccines be mandatory? Two experts discuss

A nurse giving a woman a vaccine

To be properly protective, COVID-19 vaccines need to be given to most people worldwide. Only through widespread vaccination will we reach herd immunity – where enough people are immune to stop the disease from spreading freely. To achieve this, some have suggested vaccines should be made compulsory, though the UK government has ruled this out. But with high rates of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in the UK and elsewhere, is this the right call? Here, two experts to make the case for and against mandatory COVID-19 vaccines.

Alberto Giubilini, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

COVID-19 vaccination should be mandatory – at least for certain groups. This means there would be penalties for failure to vaccinate, such as fines or limitations on freedom of movement.

The less burdensome it is for an individual to do something that prevents harm to others, and the greater the harm prevented, the stronger the ethical reason for mandating it.

Being vaccinated dramatically reduces the risk of seriously harming or killing others. Vaccines such as the Pfizer, AstraZeneca or Moderna ones with 90-95% efficacy at preventing people from getting sick are also likely to be effective at stopping the virus from spreading, though possibly to a lower degree. Such benefits would come at a very minimal cost to individuals.

Lockdown is mandatory. Exactly like mandatory vaccination, it protects vulnerable people from COVID-19. But, as I have argued in detail elsewhere, unlike mandatory vaccination, lockdown entails very large individual and societal costs. It is inconsistent to accept mandatory lockdown but reject mandatory vaccination. The latter can achieve a much greater good at a much smaller cost.

Also, mandatory vaccination ensures that the risks and burdens of reaching herd immunity are distributed evenly across the population. Because herd immunity benefits society collectively, it’s only fair that the responsibility of reaching it is shared evenly among society’s individual members.

Of course, we might achieve herd immunity through less restrictive alternatives than making vaccination mandatory – such as information campaigns to encourage people to be vaccinated. But even if we reach herd immunity, the higher the uptake of vaccines, the lower the risk of falling below the herd immunity threshold at a later time. We should do everything we can to prevent that emergency from happening – especially when the cost of doing so is low.

Fostering trust and driving uptake by making people more informed is a nice narrative, but it’s risky. Merely giving people information on vaccines does not always result in increased willingness to vaccinate and might actually lower confidence in vaccines. On the other hand, we’ve seen mandatory vaccination policies in Italy recently successfully boost vaccine uptake for other diseases.

Mandatory seatbelt policies have proven very successful in reducing deaths from car accidents, and are now widely endorsed despite the (very small) risks that seatbelts entail. We should see vaccines as seatbelts against COVID-19. In fact, as very special seatbelts, which protect ourselves and protect others.

A protestor holding a sign that says: 'No to mandatory vaccines'
Although not in the UK government’s plans, mandatory vaccines have become a focus for some protesters. EPA-EFE

Vageesh Jain, NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow in Public Health Medicine, UCL

Mandatory vaccination does not automatically increase vaccine uptake. An EU-funded project on epidemics and pandemics, which took place several years before COVID-19, found no evidence to support this notion. Looking at Baltic and Scandinavian countries, the project’s report noted that countries “where a vaccination is mandatory do not usually reach better coverage than neighbour or similar countries where there is no legal obligation”.

According to the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, mandatory vaccination may be justified for highly contagious and serious diseases. But although contagious, Public Health England does not classify COVID-19 as a high-consequence infectious disease due to its relatively low case fatality rate.

COVID-19 severity is strongly linked with age, dividing individual perceptions of vulnerability within populations. The death rate is estimated at 7.8% in people aged over 80, but at just 0.0016% in children aged nine and under. In a liberal democracy, forcing the vaccination of millions of young and healthy citizens who perceive themselves to be at an acceptably low risk from COVID-19 will be ethically disputed and is politically risky.

Public apprehensions for a novel vaccine produced at breakneck speed are wholly legitimate. A UK survey of 70,000 people found 49% were “very likely” to get a COVID-19 vaccine once available. US surveys are similar. This is not because the majority are anti-vaxxers.

Despite promising headlines, the trials and pharmaceutical processes surrounding them have not yet been scrutinised. With the first trials only beginning in April, there is limited data on long-term safety and efficacy. We don’t know how long immunity lasts for. None of the trials were designed to tell us if the vaccine prevents serious disease or virus transmission.

To disregard these ubiquitous concerns would be counterproductive. As a tool for combating anti-vaxxers – estimated at around 58 million globally and making up a small minority of those not getting vaccinated – mandatory vaccines are also problematic. The forces driving scientific and political populism are the same. Anti-vaxxers do not trust experts, industry and especially not the government. A government mandate will not just be met with unshakeable defiance, but will also be weaponised to recruit others to the anti-vaxxer cause.

In the early 1990s, polio was endemic in India, with between 500 and 1,000 children getting paralysed daily. By 2011, the virus was eliminated. This was not achieved through legislation. It was down to a consolidated effort to involve communities, target high-need groups, understand concerns, inform, educate, remove barriers, invest in local delivery systems and link with political and religious leaders.

Mandatory vaccination is rarely justified. The successful roll-out of novel COVID-19 vaccines will require time, communication and trust. We have come too far, too fast, to lose our nerve now.

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