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Glove hands preparing the Pfizer vaccine against COVID.
Andrew Lichtenstein/EPA

UK citizens get less legal protection for COVID jabs than other vaccines – and that could undermine confidence

Of all the concerns the public has about vaccine safety, there is one that has us stumped for a straightforward answer: “If the vaccines are safe, why is the government protecting itself, health professionals and companies from vaccine compensation?” In fact, the UK government has passed regulations reducing legal protection for anyone injured by a COVID-19 vaccine approved for emergency use.

We understand that part of the reason to do this was to encourage companies to aggressively invest and back vaccine development. These measures reduced their exposure to financial risk. The government effectively gave legal immunity to all the companies supplying and all the health workers injecting the vaccine. The immunity also covers the NHS trusts and foundations that employ the health workers.

This is a serious step. Instead of granting immunity, the government could have offered indemnity. Indemnity means the government’s insurers would pay the compensation in the event of complications. This is generally what the government has done during the pandemic to balance the need to protect NHS professionals from legal risk and preserve injured people’s right to compensation.

Perception counts

The wording of the government’s new regulations may also have slipped in some immunity for the government and the agencies rolling out mass-vaccination programmes, although this might not have been the intention. At this critical moment, however, perception is every bit as important as intention.

Consumer protection rights still apply for people injured by the COVID-19 vaccine as the government wasn’t allowed to take away those. But due to the legal definition of defects and a rule known as the state-of-the-art defence, it is difficult to get compensation when we know some people might react badly, but specific problems with the vaccine are not yet known.

COVID-19 vaccines have been added to the existing vaccine damages fund. The fund awards £120,000 to anyone who suffers 60% disability as a result of getting a COVID vaccine. (This refers to a severe disability such as losing a hand, amputation at a knee, losing 60% of normal vision or severe narcolepsy.) However, this is not a generous scheme. Also, someone injured by a COVID-19 vaccine is now less well protected than a person injured by other vaccines. With other vaccines, you can take your chances in court and sue for more compensation even if you suffer less than 60% disability. This isn’t easy, but at least it’s an option.

Excellent safety

Generally, vaccine safety is excellent, which makes it even more incongruous that the government is not putting its money where its mouth is and providing a clear, generous and uncomplicated compensation scheme that would immediately quash any concerns the public has.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaving number 10 Downing Street, wearing a black mask.
Prime Minister, Are you going to reassure the British public? Neil Hall/EPA

For those of us engaged in trying to reassure people using the truth and facts of vaccine safety, it is important that we are honest about risks. We need to be clear that vaccines are not completely without risk, but still just plain safer than getting COVID-19.

There are limited reassurances we can offer the public right now about what will happen to them in the very unlikely event of something unexpected happening. This will undermine confidence. If we are all in this together, it is important that the government shows solidarity with everyone taking part in vaccination and clears up the public’s confusion.

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